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Earlier Is Better to Catch Hearing Loss

When should your child's hearing be tested? Sooner than you think.

Many experts urge hearing tests before newborns leave the hospital. Every year, about 1.5 to 3 per 1,000 babies with hearing problems are born in the U.S. That translates to as many as 33 babies with hearing impairments born every day. Many states have passed laws requiring hospitals to do hearing tests on all newborn infants before they leave the hospital.

For years, routine hearing tests took place only when children entered school. But hearing loss can cause serious problems much earlier. The most significant is the development of language and speech.

By 6 months of age, babies begin to recognize the spoken sounds that are critical for developing language. Poor hearing can hamper that progress for both speaking and reading.

Risk factors

Consider having your child tested for hearing loss, especially if he or she has any of the following risk factors:

  • Two-day (or more) stay in neonatal intensive care

  • Family history of childhood hearing loss

  • Family history of certain hereditary or congenital syndromes such as Noonan’s, Waardenburg syndrome, Multiple lentigines syndrome, or Kartagener syndrome

Even without risk factors, parents should remain alert to hearing problems. Some hearing loss gets worse over time. Some hearing loss is stable. Because about two to three infants out of every 1,000 born have some degree of hearing loss, it is wise to have this checked early.

At age 5 months, infants turn their heads accurately toward sounds. By 10 months, babies should be babbling in multiple syllables.

Recurrent ear infections, which are common in young children, can also delay language development. A newborn can pass a hearing test and still develop hearing problems later in childhood.

Technology to help hearing-impaired children is evolving rapidly. Such children generally benefit from some sort of amplification, ranging from digital hearing aids to cochlear implants. Hearing aids help make the sounds louder. Cochlear implants convert sound into a signal that is sent to a receiver. The receiver then sends the signal to the brain. The receiver is a small disk surgically placed under the skin behind the ear.

No child is too young to benefit from seeking help.

Hearing tests

Your child is likely to undergo one of these painless, quick, and sensitive tests:

  • Auditory brainstem responses. Sound is introduced to the baby's ears through tiny headphones while the baby is sleeping. Using electrodes attached to the baby's head, the test records electrical activity generated by the auditory nerve when it's stimulated by this sound.

  • Otoacoustic emissions. The normal ear generates faint acoustic signals, sometimes called inner-ear echoes. Although people can't hear their own emissions, tiny, sensitive microphones placed in the ear canal during the screening can measure the sounds. Infants who can't hear create no emissions.