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How to Detect Hearing Loss in Infants

Katlyn Joy |23, December 2014


According to the March of Dimes, nearly 3 in 1000 babies are born with hearing loss each year. That adds up to around 12,000 children. This type of hearing loss, which is present at birth is called congenital hearing loss. Some children may loss some or all hearing later in infancy or childhood as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all infants be screened for hearing loss in the first month of life. Some 30 states have testing requirements for this. Often this test will occur in the hospital after the baby is born and before being discharged to go home.

Every state has a special department, the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Program or EHDI, that has resources for parents. These departments help with testing as well as finding resources to help families with issues related to hearing loss.

If your child doesn't pass the initial newborn hearing check, don't panic. Often this happens and it only means a retest is required to clear up any concerns.

Newborn Hearing Tests

There are two basic types of hearing tests administered to newborns to assess hearing. The first is called automated auditory brain stem response or AABR. This test requires little patches or electrodes to be placed on baby and attached to a computer. Your baby will have tiny earphones in his ear and his response to clicking sounds are monitored by the computer. Your child may even be asleep during the test. No diagnostic information is obtained; it is strictly a pass/fail option that checks the auditory nerve reactions to sound.

The other newborn hearing test is otoacoustic emissions or OAE. This test is meant to check how the inner ear reacts to sound using a small earphone attached to a computer. The soft clicking sound emitted during the test should cause an echo in the inner ear. The child can be awake or asleep for this test.

Should your child have failed newborn hearing screenings, you will likely be referred for further testing from an audiologist. There are two more tests that are likely to be used at this point.

The diagnostic auditory brain stem response is done similarly to the AABR test. It is used with infants under 6 months and gives more detailed info than the AABR. The results of the test can provide information to the audiologist to have hearing aids programmed for your child if necessary.

The other test, the visual response audiometry or VRA is commonly used with infants and children over 6 months of age. While wearing headphones, different sounds are sent to the child's ears and other stimuli is associated with the sounds such as images or lights, and baby should turn towards the sounds.

Causes of Infant Hearing Loss

Many times the cause of hearing loss will be unknown. One cause can be genetic reasons, and if you or your spouse has a history of hearing loss, this may be a reason. Some genetic causes are part of other birth defects, or the hearing loss may be the single birth defect in the child.

Certain viruses during pregnancy can cause hearing loss. These include:

Being born at a low birth weight or being born prematurely can be a factor in hearing loss, as can an infection after birth such as an unresolved ear infection, for instance.

What if My Baby Has Hearing Loss?

There are many options to treat hearing loss, and some may restore full hearing while others may only aid the hearing of the child. It depends on the cause and severity. Some options include medications, surgery including tubes being placed in the ears, hearing aids, cochlear implants, learning sign language, getting speech therapy and other assistance.

Signs of a Hearing Problem

If your child doesn't startle to loud noises, doesn't respond to voices or noises and turn towards them, you may alert your doctor. If your child isn't saying "Mama" or "Dada" by one year, or has delayed speech, this may be a sign of a problem. If you suspect a problem, don't delay seeking help. The sooner treatment and diagnosis is started, the better the prognosis.

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