Before babies are born, they use their hearing to listen to the sounds around them. Listening specifically to speech and language sounds in the first few months of their life is what prepares babies to speak. As you can imagine, hearing loss can have a major impact on a child and delay both speech and language, which greatly impacts academic, social and emotional development. However, when hearing loss is identified early and appropriate intervention is in place, children can stay on track with their peers.
Hospitals screen newborns for many conditions, from genetic disorders that cause birth defects to thyroid disorders. What many people don’t know is that the most common birth defect is hearing loss – it happens more than any of the other conditions that are screened for at birth.
In Ohio, there are over 130,000 births annually and 1-2 of every 1000 babies born, are born with hearing loss. Due to the great advantages of early hearing detection and intervention, Ohio law requires that all newborns have the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening before going home from the hospital.
At the hospital, two simple tests can be done to screen a baby’s hearing. The first is called auditory brainstem response, or ABR. This involves placing three small electrodes on your baby’s head neck and shoulder, and small earmuffs are placed over the baby’s ears so the baby can hear soft sounds. The second is called otoacoustic emissions, or OAEs, and it involves soft foam or rubber tips placed in the baby’s ears while the baby hears soft sounds. For both tests, the baby can rest comfortably and usually even sleeps while listening to sounds and the screening equipment measures an automatic response from the baby’s hearing system. If a baby passes the screening, this means that hearing loss at birth was not found. But it does not rule out further hearing problems. Even if your baby passes the hearing screening at birth, it is important to monitor their responses to voices and environmental sounds as they continue to grow and develop. Many factors can cause hearing loss through development from common ear infections to more complicated concerns. Any time a parent has concerns with their baby’s hearing or speech-language development they should follow up with their pediatrician, even when the hearing screening was a “pass” result.
If a baby does not pass the screening, then additional testing is needed to confirm the baby’s hearing ability. This is called a “non-pass/refer” screening result. It does not mean you should be concerned, but only that you should follow up with an audiologist in your area to give the baby a more complete diagnostic test.
At Nationwide Children’s, if your baby needs a complete diagnostic hearing test, we will help schedule an appointment with our team of audiologists, or we can give you a list of audiologists in your area who you can contact. If hearing loss is found after further testing, know that there are many programs available to help you and your baby. These programs can help to promote and support your child’s development.
If you are concerned about your baby’s hearing, speech or language, please call your pediatrician and ask for a hearing test by an audiologist. Hearing can be tested at any age, and it’s important to seek help as soon as possible!
Gina Hounam is a member of the audiology department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She received a BA in speech and hearing science in 1998 from The Ohio State University, and then went to the University of Cincinnati for her MA and PhD in audiology.
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