Computer technology makes it possible to perform tests on very young babies. The process is painless and most babies sleep through the tests. Some hospitals use a procedure that measures the ear’s response to sound, called otoacoustic emissions—OAE. Other hospitals measure the brainstem’s activity in response to sound by auditory brainstem response—ABR.
If the baby passes the hospital screening and has no risk factors, it is most likely that the child’s hearing is within normal limits at the time of the screening. Remember that a problem with hearing can occur at any time during childhood. If there is any concern about the child’s hearing or speech and language development, a physician or audiologist should be consulted.
If the baby passes the hearing screening in the hospital but has risk factors, this child has an increased possibility of a hearing loss later on. These babies should be screened again between 6 months and 1 year of age and at any time there might be a concern.
If the baby does not pass the hearing screening in the hospital further testing is needed. Noisy testing conditions, temporary fluid in the ear canal or the baby’s activity during the test can cause false positive results. However, the only way to be sure is to keep the follow up appointment.
Screening is simply a quick check to see if babies have normal hearing or may have a hearing problem. The word may is an important reminder that screening is not a diagnostic test; it simply means the baby needs further attention to determine whether or not a hearing loss is present.
The hospital should make a referral to an audiologist, a specialist in hearing testing, for babies who need more testing. It is important that this appointment be kept! The baby’s physician is also informed that further testing is recommended. Only a small number of infants have permanent hearing loss, but it is critical to identify the problem as early as possible.
In a word---communication! Babies learn speech and language by listening to the sounds of speech from the moment they are born. Hearing during the first months of life prepares the baby to begin babbling and eventually speaking his first words. If a child is not found to have a hearing loss until two or three years of age, valuable time has been lost and significant developmental delays result. Finally, by screening all babies rather than those appearing to be “at risk” for hearing loss, twice as many hearing-impaired infants are identified.