Before you bring your newborn home from the hospital, they’ll get a tested for any hearing problems. The results should help ensure that they are able to learn and communicate without delays as they grow.
Why The Test is Needed
Babies begin to soak up information as soon as they’re born. One of the most important learning tools they have is their hearing. Your baby will learn a lot when they listen to what’s going on in the world around them, including what you say to them.
Research shows that infants with hearing problems that are not known or addressed before they’re 6 months old may have trouble with speech and language as they get older. But if any hearing problems are found and addressed before 6 months, a child’s speech and language should develop at a normal pace. That’s why early testing is so important.
You might think your baby’s hearing is fine when it isn’t. Hearing loss can be subtle.
Many babies with hearing loss can hear some things, but they might not hear enough things to help them learn language. For instance, your little one may cry when they hear a door slam or a smoke alarm go off, but that doesn’t mean that they can hear a whisper or someone talking at normal volume.
Types of Tests
There are two hearing tests that are widely used to check newborn hearing. Which test your baby gets depends upon where you live, because every state has its own screening method.
Both tests are ideal for spotting hearing problems in newborns. They are called the auditory brainstem response (ABR) test and the otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test.
ABR: This method finds out whether or not your baby’s hearing nerves, which carry sound from each of their ears to their brain, work well.
What happens: During the test, doctors place soft earphones in your baby’s ears and attach three small electrodes to their head. The doctor plays different sounds through the earphones, then measures how well each ear’s hearing nerve responds, with the help of the electrodes. It only takes a few minutes, and the screening won’t cause your baby any pain. They won’t know that their ears are being checked. In fact, they can sleep right through the test.
OAE: Doctors use this method to see whether your baby’s ears have the correct response when they’re exposed to sounds. In a normal ear, sounds create an echo, which doctors can measure.
What happens: During the test, doctors place small probes into your baby’s ear canals. The doctor plays different sounds, and the probes in your baby’s ears measure the echo response to the sounds in each ear. Just like the ABR test, your baby won’t notice that they are being screened. It’s a quick, painless process.
What the Results Mean
Don’t be alarmed if your newborn doesn’t pass their hearing test. Some babies with normal hearing don’t pass this first screening. There are many reasons why this may happen:
- The test was given in a noisy room.
- The person giving the test didn’t have enough experience.
- The earphones or probes didn’t fit into your baby’s ears well.
- Your baby moved around too much during the test.
- There was fluid in your baby’s ears when they were tested.
If your child didn’t have a normal hearing test, they’ll need to see a special hearing doctor, called an audiologist, before they’re 3 months old. When you take them to see this doctor, they’ll take follow-up tests to see if there’s really a hearing problem. If there is, the doctor will find out what’s causing the problem and how much hearing loss your baby has. Sometimes, the doctor may send you to an ear-nose-throat specialist for your baby’s treatment.
There are many treatment options for babies with hearing loss. Your doctor should provide your baby with one before they are 6 months old. The younger they are when they begin to have help with their hearing, the easier it will be for them to speak and understand language without delays.
Your doctor may suggest:
- Hearing aids or another hearing device
- Cochlear implants, which are special devices that help people with profound hearing loss
- Learning sign language to communicate with your baby
When your baby gets older, other devices and services may help them hear or communicate more easily at home and at school.