Your baby’s hearing

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Your baby’s hearing

Highlights
  • If you have any concerns about your baby’s hearing, speak to your doctor.
  • The earlier a hearing problem is found and treated, the better chance your child has of succeeding in school later on.
  • Remember, the signs of hearing loss can be difficult to detect.

Some babies are born with hearing problems. Hearing loss is the most common congenital condition (meaning it’s present at birth) in Canada. It’s more common than all other conditions that babies are screened for.

About 3 in 1000 babies are born profoundly deaf. And another 3 in 1000 have serious hearing loss. Most hearing-impaired children are healthy and born to hearing parents.

What do I do if I think my baby isn’t hearing well?

If you have any concerns about your baby’s hearing, speak to your doctor. Though your doctor won’t be able to diagnose hearing loss accurately in the office, you can be referred to a centre that can test your child’s hearing and tell whether there is a problem.

The earlier a hearing problem is found and treated, the better chance your child has of succeeding in school later on. 

How are hearing problems diagnosed?

There are a few ways to detect hearing loss very early in life. The oto-acoustic emission (OAE) test is the most common test. A specialist puts a small microphone in a baby’s ear, which sends a sound. The echo that comes back is sent to a portable computer. The computer can tell whether the baby heard the sound. The test, which takes 10 to 15 minutes, can be done even before your baby leaves the hospital.

Many Canadian provinces have universal newborn hearing screening programs—meaning all babies are tested at birth. If you live somewhere that does not have a program, you may have to pay for the test.

What are some signs that a child has a hearing problem?

Without newborn hearing screening and special tests, the signs of hearing loss can be very subtle. Sometimes babies and children seem very alert, so you think they can hear you well. Or, they learn to read your lips.

If you are concerned about or suspect a hearing problem, or if you notice any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as you can and ask about a hearing test:

Infants and toddlers

See your doctor if your child:

  • stops babbling (usually parents don’t notice this until about 12 months of age).
  • does not pay attention or react to loud noises around the house (such as a doorbell, telephone, dog barking).
  • does not turn toward sound by 3-4 months and turn toward spoken words by 9 months.
  • has had frequent colds, ear infections and/or fluid draining from the ears.
  • does not say single words by 12 months.
  • does not understand simple phrases unless the speaker is facing them (such as, “Go get your shoes.”).
  • starts speaking later than usual, or is difficult to understand.
  • speaks loudly or turns up the volume of the television or radio, so much so that it disturbs others.

Pre-schoolers and school-aged children

See your doctor if your child:

  • starts speaking later than usual, or is difficult to understand.
  • needs things to be repeated.
  • speaks loudly or turns up the volume on the television or radio.
  • has difficulty following simple instructions.
  • seems like he is not paying attention, especially when in a group or noisy setting, like child care or school.
  • has trouble learning in school (vision should also be checked).
  • is easily frustrated, more so than other children of the same age.

Remember, the signs of hearing loss can be difficult to detect. You may only notice them when the hearing loss has been present for many months. Young children have a remarkable ability to compensate, even if they hear very little. Discuss any concerns with your child’s doctor.

Do children with hearing problems develop the same as other children?

It depends on how early the problem is diagnosed. Children who are diagnosed later—especially after 2 years of age—will likely have lifelong problems with language, speech and literacy.

Success in school is linked to literacy. And literacy—being able to read and write effectively—is linked to the hearing and speech centres in the brain. To be able to speak, children need to hear. Children who hear and speak learn to read and write more easily.

The first few months of life are critical for developing the speech and language area of the brain. Studies show that the earlier a baby can hear, the better her language skills will be. Deaf children who are diagnosed early and get the right kind of help can develop just like other children their age. 

Technologies such as digital hearing aids and cochlear implants, allow even profoundly deaf children to hear and speak.

Even newborns can be fitted with hearing aids. Cochlear implants are being placed in younger and younger infants, with the ideal time being before a year of age.

This information adapted with permission from the Quebec Coalition for Universal Newborn Hearing Screening.



Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Community Paediatrics Committee

Last updated: October 2008