I never really thought much about newborn hearing screening procedures until my youngest son was born.
When my son Dominic was born, we realized immediately that he has Down Syndrome. This was not a big concern to us. We found him delightful from the start, but we were uncertain about what his diagnosis meant to his future and to ours. Right away there were issues that had not come up with the other children. He failed his newborn hearing screening. Twice.
“Come back in a few days,” they said, “and we’ll try it again.” Since I live an hour from the hospital, I wasn’t too excited at that prospect, but I knew, too, that if Dominic did have a hearing loss, we’d want to know about it right away. We loaded up and came in a couple weeks later. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was about the whole thing. I watched the machine as the nurse told me that he had to reach a certain number to pass. One ear passed quickly. The other climbed slowly. I held my breath and then, at the end, there was a quick surge and the numbers shot up into the passing range. Relief.
Newborn hearing assessments are now routine in most states. To perform this quick screener, a nurse gently attaches small electrodes to the infant’s head to measure the brain’s response to sound. The testing is usually done while the baby is sleeping to attain the best results, and those children who do not pass are referred for more in-depth testing.
During the testing, called auditory brainstem response (ABR) testing, a series of clicking sounds or tones are introduced into the baby’s ear. The sounds gradually become softer and the child’s response is measured. ABR testing can detect the activity of the inner ear, auditory nerve and brainstem.
Early detection of hearing loss helps a child to have the opportunity to develop spoken speech and language on schedule or nearly on schedule.
When children do not pass the initial screening at the hospital, both the child’s parents and pediatrician are notified and a follow-up assessment is scheduled. If the child does not pass the follow-up, he may be referred for a complete audiological workup. After that is completed, any child who has a documented hearing loss will be referred to an ear nose and throat specialist to determine the medical cause of the hearing loss. This information allows for proper follow up and treatment.