Has Your Baby's Hearing Been Screened?

Most children hear and listen from birth. They learn to talk by imitating the sounds around them and the voices of their parents and caregivers. But that's not true for all children. In fact, about 2 or 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born deaf or hard-of-hearing. More lose their hearing later during childhood. Many of these children may need to learn speech and language differently, so it's important to detect deafness or hearing loss as early as possible.

How early should I have my baby's hearing screened?

Your baby should have a hearing screening within the first month of life. If hearing loss is suspected, make sure a hearing expert, called an audiologist (aw-dee-AH-luh-jist) tests your baby's hearing by 3 months of age. If hearing loss is confirmed, it's important to consider the use of hearing devices and other communication options by 6 months of age.

Where can my baby's hearing be screened?

Many hospitals automatically screen all newborns for hearing loss. Some screen only those newborns at high risk for hearing loss, such as babies with a family history of deafness or hearing problems, low birth weight, or certain other medical conditions. Even if your baby doesn't have risk factors, being screened is important, because many children with no risk factors have hearing loss. Even children whose parents and grandparents hear normally may be born with a hearing loss. Find out what your hospital does. If you and your baby are already home and you don't know if your baby's hearing was tested, ask the doctor or the clinic where your baby's records are.

Recently, many states have passed Early Hearing Detection and Intervention legislation. A few other states regularly screen the hearing of most newborns, but have no legislation that requires screening. To find out what your state does, visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) web site.

How will my baby's hearing be screened?

Two hearing tests are used to screen babies. In both tests, no activity is required from your child other than lying still.

Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) tests can show whether parts of the ear respond properly to sound. During this test, a sponge earphone is placed into the ear canal. The ear is stimulated with sound, and the "echo" is measured. The echo is found in everyone who hears normally. If there is no echo, it could indicate a hearing loss.

Auditory brain stem response (ABR) tests check how the brain stem (the part of the nerve that carries sound from the ear to the brain) and the brain respond to sound. During this test, your child wears earphones, and electrodes are placed on the head and ears. A mild sedative may be given to help keep your child calm and quiet during the test. The nurse or doctor sends sounds through the earphones and measures the electrical activity in your child's brain when he or she should be hearing.

If your child doesn't respond consistently to the sounds presented during either of these tests, your doctor may suggest a follow up hearing screening and a referral to an audiologist for a more comprehensive hearing evaluation.

Why is it important to have my baby's hearing screened early?

The most important time for a child to be exposed to and learn language is in the first 3 years of life. In fact, children begin learning speech and language in the first 6 months of life. Research suggests that those who have hearing impairment and get intervention have better language skills than those who don't. The earlier you know about deafness or hearing loss, the sooner you can make sure your child benefits from strategies that will help him or her learn to communicate.

How can I recognize hearing loss during early childhood?

Even though screening is designed to detect hearing loss as early as possible, some children don't develop hearing loss until later in life. In those instances, parents, caregivers, or grandparents are often the first to notice. Even if you've had your baby's hearing tested, you should look for signs that your baby is hearing well.