The ins and outs of hearing

During the first few years of life, hearing is a critical part of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Even mild or partial hearing loss can affect a child’s ability to speak and understand language. Most children who are born with hearing loss can be diagnosed through a hearing screening before they leave the hospital after birth. But in some cases, hearing loss is caused by infection, trauma or being exposed to very loud noise levels. These types of conditions usually don’t emerge until later in childhood.

Every state has an early hearing detection and intervention program to identify children born with permanent hearing loss before they reach 3 months of age and to provide treatment before 6 months of age. If a baby doesn’t have this screening or was born at home or a birthing center other than a hospital, it’s important to have a hearing screening within the first three weeks of life.

If a baby does not pass the initial hearing screening, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s hearing loss. Because debris or fluid in the ear can interfere with the test, hearing is often retested to confirm a diagnosis.

If your newborn doesn’t pass the initial hearing screening, it’s important to get it retested within three months so treatment can begin as early as possible. Kids who seem to have normal hearing should continue to have their hearing evaluated at regular doctors’ appointments as they grow. Hearing tests are usually done at ages 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15 and 18, and any other time if there’s a concern. If your child seems to have trouble hearing, if speech development seems abnormal or if speech is difficult to understand, talk with a doctor.

Symptoms of hearing loss

Even if a newborn passes a hearing screening, continue to watch for signs that hearing is normal. Some milestones a child should reach during the first year of life:

  • Most newborn infants startle or “jump” at sudden loud noises.
  • By 3 months, a baby usually recognizes a parent’s voice.
  • By 6 months, an infant can usually turn his or her eyes or head toward a sound.
  • By 12 months, a child can usually imitate some sounds and produce a few words, such as “mama” or “bye-bye.”

As a baby grows into a toddler, signs of hearing loss may include:

  • Has limited, poor or no speech
  • Is frequently inattentive
  • Has difficulty learning
  • Watches TV with the volume turned up
  • Fails to respond to conversation-level speech or answers inappropriately when spoken to