How to Protect Baby's Hearing

Little ears need lots of attention. Here's how to make sure your baby's hearing is on track.

Easy Listening

cute baby smiling

Linda Farwell

Just after birth, your baby's ears should be in almost perfect working order. But in some cases they're not, and that's why experts say we should listen up from the very beginning. If your baby has undiagnosed hearing loss, it can trip up his speech development and lead to later struggles in school if, for example, he can't hear a teacher's voice above the buzz of classroom activity. Learn more about spotting problems and helping your baby's hearing.

Parents of deaf newborns rarely realize their babies are at risk.

Daniel Knowsley's parents were told not to worry when he failed a hearing screening the day after birth. False positives -- failures among hearing babies -- are common, and rescreening usually brings relief. However, Daniel failed a repeat the following day and again a week later. An audiologist diagnosed severe to profound hearing loss in the baby's left ear and moderate to severe in his right. "We were completely devastated," says mom Cyndi of Tuttle, Oklahoma. "We had no idea he was at risk." Daniel got his first hearing aids at 5 weeks; now 6, he's thriving in regular classrooms.

Daniel's parents are among the 1 in 32 people carrying a defective hearing gene. Because it's recessive, both Mom and Dad can hear fine, but the abnormality has a 1 in 4 chance of showing up in a child. Hearing loss also occurs with some genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome. In fact, faulty genes account for 50 to 75 percent of hearing loss in newborns.

Genetics isn't the only risk. Prematurity, low birth weight, jaundice, and delivery problems such as lack of oxygen may also cause hearing loss. So can congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common infection that up to 80 percent of Americans get by the time they reach age 40. It feels like a mild cold and is usually harmless -- but in a pregnant woman it can have devastating consequences for a growing baby, including potential hearing loss. Sidestep CMV with diligent handwashing, especially after changing diapers or wiping kids' noses.

Have your newborn's hearing checked ASAP, then stay attuned to signs of later loss.

All states have laws to help ensure hearing screening for all babies, although standards vary: many mandate it, but others simply require that parents be informed about screening. Some states (such as Ohio) pick up the cost, while others (like West Virginia) require insurers to do so. Be sure your baby receives the screening -- ask your OB if it'll be done at the hospital right after birth. If not, schedule it within a month.

Hospitals will use one or two tests, each no longer than 10 minutes. One test probes the ear for damage or blockage, and another measures brainwaves in response to sound. If you're advised to see an audiologist about a suspected problem, don't delay. "The brain develops fast in the first 12 to 18 months, and sensory input plays a big role," says Betty Vohr, MD, medical director of the Rhode Island Hearing Assessment Program. "If hearing isn't stimulated for a prolonged period, babies don't learn language." Addressing the problem by 6 months with, say, hearing aids helps keep language skills almost on par with those of peers.

Every well visit should include a hearing check, but you can also keep tabs by tallying baby's first words. She should babble or imitate voices by 12 months, use single words by 18 months, and say at least 10 words by 2 years, says Gordon Hughes, MD, program director of clinical trials for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

Of course, it's hard to track the word count of a rapidly growing vocabulary, so take notice if your child constantly uses the words "huh?" or "what?" Here are other red flags: "A child who studies your face for more information, sits close to the TV, or switches a phone back and forth between ears may be struggling to hear better," says Joy Peterson, manager of audiology at the Center for Childhood Communication at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

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