Before your newborn leaves the hospital, she'll undergo a quick, painless test to check her hearing. Although most babies can hear just fine, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that up to 3 out of every 1,000 babies are born with some type of hearing loss. The risk for hearing difficulties is higher -- 4 out of 100 -- for those who spend time in neonatal intensive care. "This may be due to oxygen deprivation or assisted ventilation, exposure to ototoxic medication [antibiotics harmful to hearing], or hyperbilirubinemia [jaundice] that required a blood transfusion," says Jori Weingarten, an audiologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Still, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) estimates that more than half of all cases of newborn hearing loss are caused by inherited genetic defects.
It's become state law for hospitals to conduct universal newborn hearing screenings. If you learn that your baby has a hearing problem, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, or otolaryngologist, will review medical options. In the most profound cases, a cochlear implants can be surgically placed in a child's inner ear to help restore her ability to hear sounds, but a child must be a year old to undergo this procedure. Because a lot of language acquisition occurs during an infant's first year of life, it is recommended that all hearing-impaired babies wear hearing aids. These devices can make communicating, bonding, and caring for your baby a little easier.
Feeding. If your infant has a hearing aid, you may hear some feedback from it while nursing or bottle-feeding if there is something covering the microphone. "The ear mold [attached to the hearing aid] can loosen when a baby's ear is pressed up against mom or dad during feedings," Weingarten explains. "Escaping sounds are picked up by the device's microphone and then reamplified, creating a high-pitched whistling noise." That screechy noise is more annoying to you than to your little one. You can turn off the hearing aid or remove it if the sound becomes too unpleasant.
Sleeping. To help with speech and language development, your baby should wear his hearing aid for at least six to eight hours a day. "The standard rule is that hearing devices are worn during all waking hours so children get maximum exposure to sounds," Weingarten says. Remove the hearing aids when your baby naps and when you put him down for the night.
Reaching Milestones. Children who have hearing loss have a higher risk of language and speech problems, which is why early detection and intervention are key. At the time that your baby was diagnosed, you should have received information about early intervention programs in your area (if not, talk to your pediatrician). These free programs are covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and include speech-language therapies. Research shows that hearing-impaired children who begin early intervention programs before 6 months of age develop language skills (either spoken or signed) on par with their hearing peers.
Baby sign language is used to foster early communication by parents whose babies have normal hearing, as well as by parents whose babies have hearing loss. The signs were adapted and modified from American Sign Language. "The more opportunities you can provide for a hearing-impaired child to build vocabulary and master communication, the better," Weingarten says. So although you don't necessarily have to use sign language to communicate with your child, it could help improve her language skills. Another way to aid your baby's language acquisition is to make sure that she sees, as well as hears, what you are saying. This doesn't mean speaking loudly or exaggerating sounds. Face your child when you speak, and make eye contact. If necessary, tap her lightly on the shoulder or wave your hand to get her attention before you talk. Be expressive when communicating with your baby -- use hand gestures and facial expressions, and show your feelings by cuddling, touching, and smiling.
Remember that you do not have to navigate your baby's first year alone. Your pediatrician, ENT specialist, and early intervention counselor can help you as you learn to care for and communicate with your hearing-impaired child.
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