As a new parent you may wonder whether it is important to have your baby’s hearing tested at birth. It is! Even before birth, at about 20 weeks of fetal development, hearing begins, and prepares your baby to listen to the sounds around him. So, a newborn who can’t hear is already 20 weeks behind other newborn babies.
The first months and years of a child’s life are extremely important for the development of speech and language. Most children who are able to hear from birth pick up spoken language by hearing the sounds around them. They quickly learn to associate the sounds they hear with objects and events in their environment and will imitate the sounds and voices of people they hear.
But a baby with hearing loss will have difficulty doing this. Every year, about two in 1,000 babies are born with a hearing loss and others lose their hearing later on. If the hearing loss goes undetected, the child will likely have delays in speech and language. This may cause academic, social, emotional and behavioural problems later on.
The good news is that if the hearing loss is detected early, children can get the help they need at a young age. They can learn to develop language and have the potential to catch up to their peers.
So, where does the screening take place and how is it done?
Screening takes place either:
- after birth, before your child leaves the hospital
- in a community clinic, if the hospital screening was missed and the baby is four months old or younger. For example, mothers who home birth are often seen at these clinics.
The screening process is quick, safe and simple and will not hurt your baby. While your baby is sleeping, a soft tip will be placed in his ear and sounds will be played to each ear by a computer.
Babies will receive either a “pass” or a “refer” result. Babies who receive a “refer” result will be sent for more testing. Depending on whether your baby is “at risk” for hearing loss, more testing may either take place at a community clinic or at an Infant Hearing Program Audiology clinic.
What happens if my baby gets a “refer” result?
Getting a “refer” result doesn’t mean that your child definitely has a hearing loss. It’s just an indicator that more testing is needed.
If your child is sent for more testing, it’s very important that you don’t miss the appointment.
Taking care of your child’s hearing loss early in life will ensure that he has the chance to develop language skills that are important for all aspects of his life.
Babies typically spend their first year listening before they say their first words. With an undiagnosed hearing loss, children miss this natural opportunity to learn the sounds of speech even though they’re not yet saying anything.
If your child doesn’t get the right follow-up services, you may notice that he may not be very responsive to sounds in the environment or he may only respond sometimes. You may also notice that he doesn’t babble or make the sounds children with typical hearing make. This will impact how well he communicates later on.
My baby passed the infant hearing screening but I’ve noticed he doesn’t always respond to sound. What should I do?
Even if a child passes the hearing screening, it’s possible for hearing loss to present itself later on. This is called progressive hearing loss. If your child has a family history of hearing loss, was born prematurely, has any type of ear malformation, among other factors, he may be at risk. If you are concerned about progressive hearing loss, contact your child’s physician to get a referral to an audiologist.
Nowadays, it is possible for children with all types and degrees of hearing loss to be effective communicators. Early identification is key! If your goal is for your child to learn to listen and talk, technology can help; hearing aids and cochlear implants can be fit on very young children allowing them to develop spoken language. If you child would benefit from a visual approach, then a range of options, from early hand signs to American Sign Language (ASL), are available.
If you have further questions about newborn hearing screening or are concerned about your child’s hearing, please contact the Toronto Infant Hearing Program at 416-338-8255.
As of April 1, 2022 the Preschool Speech and Language, Blind-Low Vision and Infant Hearing programs have moved from Toronto Public Health (Early Abilities) to Surrey Place. To register for services or learn more about the programs, please visit Surrey Place or call 416-925-5141.