Hearing loss in babies: Importance of early diagnosis and intervention

This week (March 1 – 7) is Hearing Awareness Week, and national not-for-profit First Voice is challenging the public to learn about the possible outcomes for the 3.6 million Australians with hearing loss.

Recent research by First Voice revealed that 94% of Australians are unaware that children born deaf can learn to hear, listen, and speak just like a child with ‘typical hearing’ if provided the right opportunity to do so.

This is why early diagnosis and intervention is vital. Starting treatment and getting the right support as early as possible is incredibly important for their development.

How many babies are born with hearing loss?

  • Hearing loss affects more than 1,000 babies born each year, making it one of the most common disabilities at birth.
  • Including the children who acquire later hearing loss, permanent childhood hearing loss affects more than 3 in every 1,000 Australian children by the age of 5.
  • 92% of these children with permanent hearing loss are born to hearing parents.

How is hearing loss diagnosed in newborns?

Parents are offered a hearing screening test for their newborn from 12 hours old. The test is usually done before the baby leaves the hospital or it can be carried out at home. If a baby is not screened, parents should ask their midwife or child health nurse to arrange an appointment.

Two main tests are carried out by a trained hearing screener to screen a newborn: ABR (Auditory Brainstem Response) and OAE (Otoacoustic Emissions). These pain-free tests will only take a few minutes and are often done while the baby sleeps or settled.

Parents receive the results straight away. If the hearing test shows a clear response from both of the baby’s ears, it’s unlikely they have hearing loss. Some babies need to have a second test to achieve a clear result. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the baby has a hearing loss; it just means that the screening test result was affected by something else such as temporary fluid in the ear canals from the birth.

What happens if the baby doesn’t pass the hearing screen?

If a newborn doesn’t pass the first hearing screen test, they will need to have a second test after a few weeks. If they don’t pass the second test, they will be referred to a paediatric audiologist to do a full hearing assessment.

If there is a hearing problem, the tests will show whether it’s likely to be temporary or permanent. The child will then receive the appropriate treatment and support.

What is the treatment and support for hearing loss in babies?

More than 90% of children born with hearing loss have the potential to hear and speak with the help of hearing devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, plus specialised listening and spoken language intervention.

Early diagnosis and access to sound are integral to successful speech and language development.

Understanding the cause of the hearing loss helps to determine the best treatment:

  • Hearing loss is described by how much hearing has been lost and which part of the ear has been affected.
  • The two main types of hearing impairment are ‘conductive’ or ‘sensorineural’. Having both types is called a ‘mixed loss’.
  • Loss is also described as mild, moderate, moderate to severe, severe, or profound.

Treatment of hearing loss depends on its cause and severity but can include medication, grommets, removal of a foreign object or wax, surgery to drain fluid, hearing aids, a cochlear implant, and speech therapy.

What are the signs of hearing loss in babies and what to look for?

A newborn hearing screening can miss a mild hearing loss, and hearing can change, so it’s important to always be aware and look out for signs including:

  • If by 4 months, a baby isn’t startled by or doesn’t turn towards the source of loud noises
  • A baby only notices someone when they see them
  • They hear some sounds but not others
  • If a baby is slow to sit up or walk
  • If they have repeated ear infections
  • When they appear not to hear when called or they don’t respond to their name

If you have any concern about hearing loss, please make an appointment with your GP or speak to your maternal and child health nurse, and contact a member centre of First Voice near you. 

First Voice

Pregnancy, Birth & Baby

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