Infant Hearing Screening

You may think newborns are immune to hearing loss, but sadly, it’s one of the most common birth disorders, affecting roughly 1-3 out of every 1,000 newborns. Fortunately, with early intervention, the impact can be minimized. 98% of U.S.-born babies underwent Infant hearing screening in 2011, the most recent year studied.

In the past, only newborns with high risk factors for hearing loss were tested at birth. These included a family history of hearing loss, low birth weight or prematurity, abnormal head or face structures, high bilirubin levels, and low Apgar scores. But testing high-risk infants proved ineffective – half of those with hearing loss were never identified, prompting physicians to recommend universal hearing screening for all infants. Doing so increases the odds that they will lead healthy, productive lives.

Hearing loss in children can lead to delays in speech and language development and impaired social skills. Early intervention and treatment is key: when hearing loss is identified prior to the age of 6 months, the child’s speech and language abilities can develop at the same rate as his or her peers. If detected later – say, not until the age of 2 or 3 – the child is already at a significant disadvantage.

There are two different hearing tests used for screening infants. An otoacoustic emissions test (OAE) measures the response of the inner ear to sound. A tiny probe containing a microphone and speaker is placed in the baby’s ear. When sound is played, an otoacoustic emission – essentially an echo – should follow in the ear canal. An audiologist is able to determine which sounds are causing a response. The second type of test is the auditory brainstem response (ABR), which measures the brainstem’s response to sound. Electrodes are attached to the baby’s head, and sounds are played through earphones. These should stimulate the hearing nerve to generate electrical activity to the brain. The audiologist can see how the infant responds to different volume levels.