As any parent knows, the first moments spent with a new baby are emotional ones. With elation, pride, and hope, mothers and fathers greet their little ones with love and vow to do whatever they can to keep them happy and healthy.
For approximately 12,000 American children each year, that means needing assistance to hear better.
One of the most common birth defects in the United States, hearing loss currently affects up to 6 in 1,000 babies. More than 10 percent of babies born with an infection called cytomegalovirus can develop hearing loss during their first few years. Most, if not all, infants with a type of hearing loss are diagnosed shortly after birth following their newborn hearing screening. Thanks to this early detection, parents are empowered to make fully informed decisions regarding their child’s health and well-being. Whether they choose to explore hearing technology, such as hearing devices and cochlear implants, or prefer their child adopt American Sign Language as a primary form of communication, early acceptance and implementation of a solution is a vital part of setting up their child for success by instilling self-confidence and promoting the development of stronger speech and learning skills.
Newborn hearing screenings were first recommended in the late ‘60s when the National Conference on Education of the Deaf called for testing of infants 5 to 12 months of age. Following much discussion in the ‘80s, the Joint Committee on Infant Hearing (JCIH) released a position statement in 1994 that recommended, “all infants with hearing loss should be identified before three months of age and receive intervention by six months of age.”
Since then, each state has taken measures to ensure children are screened as early as possible. Currently, 36 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia require hearing screenings for newborns before they can be discharged from the hospital or birthing center. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the nearly 4 million infants born in the United States in 2005, 91.5 percent were screened for hearing loss.
Other states mandate insurance policies cover the cost of the screening, the use of state funds to pay for the screenings, or simply require that screening information is made available to parents before they can be discharged.
There are two main types of tests used to screen a newborn’s hearing: otoacoustic emissions (OAEs) or auditory brainstem response (ABR). An OAE is conducted by placing a very small earphone and microphone into the baby’s ear. Sounds are played, and if a baby hears normally, an echo is reflected back into the ear canal and is measured by the microphone. Alternately, an ABR test measures how the baby’s hearing nerve responds to sounds.
If these tests determine that an infant has a hearing loss, parents have access to a vast array of resources. By working closely with a pediatrician and hearing healthcare specialist, parents can find the best solution to ensure their child’s overall well-being.
On November 13, 2014, the foremost pioneer of newborn hearing screenings, Dr. Marion Downs, passed away at the age of 100. Downs contributed greatly to the field of pediatric audiology during its own infancy in the 1960s and was instrumental to the implementation of infant testing procedures and standardization.