7 Important Things to Know About Baby’s Hearing
Before you leave the hospital, baby will most likely have a variety of tests to make sure they’re healthy and ready to go home with you. One test you may not know about? The newborn hearing screening. This test is a “standard of care” across the country and 98 percent of babies born in the United States receive a hearing screening after birth. Early detection of hearing loss is a priority because every day counts when it comes to listening and learning, setting the foundation for baby’s future.
“Child development hinges on hearing as a building block,” explains Teresa Caraway, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, LSLS Cert. AVT, incoming CEO of Oberkotter Foundation-Hearing First, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting families with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. “Hearing, listening and talking are all important for learning to read and developing literacy skills,” she says.
Identifying hearing issues early on—by 6 months of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and getting families access to resources to support them, can help children who are born hard of hearing with their development. Read on to learn 7 more facts about baby’s hearing you should know.
How exactly do humans learn to talk? By listening, says Dr. Caraway. And children who have any type of hearing loss can miss auditory information that their brains use to create critical neural pathways and develop spoken language communication skills later.
Long before children start to speak, their brains are actively learning how to form those first words—but it all depends on being able to hear the sounds of speech in the first place. Dr. Caraway points out that hearing allows a child to learn to talk and listen, which are important for learning to read and developing literacy skills. Literacy is so much more than just reading and writing. It also helps them learn math, develop technology skills and be able to solve problems—literacy skills are what opens doors to success in life.
In the past, a diagnosis of any type of hearing loss commonly didn’t occur until the child was 2 to 3 years old, explains Dr. Caraway. Since babies are largely nonverbal, it wasn’t until parents or caregivers realized that a toddler wasn’t talking normally that doctors were prompted to look into their hearing.
“So what was happening is that we had children who were missing out on the most critical window of time for the development of speech and language skills and cognition,” she says. But today, it’s a different story for babies born with hearing loss, with diagnosis occurring within weeks of birth. Thanks to guidelines set forth by the Joint Commission on Infant Hearing (JCIH), babies are screened by one month of age, diagnosed by three months, and begin early intervention by six months of age.
“When babies receive hearing aids by six months of age, we know that those children grow up to listen and talk just like kids with typical hearing,” Dr. Caraway explains. In fact, early intervention has been so successful that the JCIH is looking to move up the timeline even earlier. “We want to identify hearing loss even earlier because what we know about the brain is that the earlier a hearing loss is diagnosed and a child is fitted with appropriate hearing technology and begins listening and spoken-language intervention, the better the outcomes,” she adds.
If your baby fails their hospital newborn hearing screening, don’t panic. While it could mean that some sort of hearing loss is present, it’s not always a surefire indication something is wrong. There are other reasons a baby could fail a hearing screening, such as having fluid left in the ears from birth, a testing error, or even if the baby is very active and the test isn’t able to be run properly. (The test is generally most effective when the baby is sleeping and not moving around a lot.) The only way to know for sure after a failed hearing screening is to make a follow-up appointment for a rescreening or a complete evaluation.
A failed screening can come as a surprise because in the majority of cases where a child has some kind of hearing loss—about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 births—the parents do not have any hearing loss themselves. Many hospitals will try to repeat a failed hearing screen before your baby is discharged, but if your baby doesn’t pass again, you’ll need to take action right away. Schedule another test or a complete hearing evaluation as soon as possible.
The most common version of a newborn hearing screen uses small electrode stickers placed on your baby’s head to gently test how the brain and auditory nerves respond to sound. And while early hearing screens can accurately detect hearing problems from a physical level, Dr. Caraway says it’s still important for parents to be aware of some of the signs that could indicate hearing loss in a child. For instance, if your baby doesn’t startle or show a reaction to sound—such as quieting when you sing or turning toward a sound—or, for older babies, not being able to follow simple directions such as “turn the page” or “wave bye.”
If baby has started babbling and cooing and then suddenly stops, that could be another indicator that they have some type of hearing loss, adds Dr. Caraway. If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to have your child evaluated immediately.
But where to get that evaluation? Dr. Caraway recommends a pediatric audiologist, an expert—usually with a clinical doctorate (AuD or Phd)—who specializes in diagnosing and treating children with hearing loss. You can find pediatric audiologists through the American Academy of Audiology or the American Speech–Language–Hearing Association.
If you can’t get in directly with a pediatric audiologist, booking an appointment with your child’s pediatrician is a good place to start. The most important step is reaching out for help, because the earlier the intervention, the better the long-term impact for your child will be.
Even children who are diagnosed as severe or profoundly deaf can still hear and access the sounds of speech with today’s advanced technology. Advances in technology also mean babies as young as a few weeks can be fit with hearing aids. “We have amazing hearing technology today that provides a continuum of opportunities,” explains Dr. Caraway, including devices such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive aids.
If you do discover that your child has some type of hearing loss and will need interventions, resources like HearingFirst.org can help support both you and your child in their hearing journey.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.