Every year, 12,000 babies are born with some degree of hearing impairment, making this the number-one birth defect in America. And it's hard to know whether your child is at risk, because an estimated 90 percent of hearing-impaired babies are born to parents with normal hearing. Often the problem isn't discovered until the child is about 2 1/2 years old, with milder losses frequently unrecognized until kindergarten. That can have lasting consequences, because the infant brain begins to develop the capacity for language shortly after birth. Fortunately, 37 states have now mandated that hearing tests be standard for newborns. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, in Bethesda, Maryland, recommends this schedule to make sure your baby gets the screenings she needs.
DURING PREGNANCY: Check the screening policy at the hospital or birthing center where you plan to deliver. If hearing isn't part of standard newborn screenings, request the test.
AFTER BIRTH: If you don't know whether your baby was screened, call your pediatrician and ask to see a copy of your child's records. If the test wasn't done, make sure to schedule one before your baby is 1 month old.
BY 3 MONTHS: Newborn screening only detects possible hearing loss, so if the test red-flags any problems, your baby's hearing will need to be fully tested before she's 3 months old by an audiologist. This follow-up evaluation will confirm whether your child has a hearing problem and, if so, the type and severity of her disorder.
BY 6 MONTHS: If your child does have a hearing impair-ment, it's crucial to begin treatment as soon as possible. Studies show that children with hearing loss who receive intervention by 6 months usually develop good language and learning skills. Even babies can be fitted with hearing aids, and cochlear implants (electronic devices that replace the function of the inner ear) are proving remarkably effective for children with profound deafness. Though the implants are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration only for children 12 months and older, waivers are often granted for younger children. And you can start teaching sign-language skills now too.