Believe it or not, your baby has been hearing things since before she was born. In fact, your baby has been responding to the sound of your voice with an increased heart rate from the third trimester. Around one month of age, your baby is already able to tell the difference between certain sounds, like “ba” and “da”, and by the age of six months she is able to recognise and respond to her own name. But just because your baby was probably born with a pair of ears in perfect working order, doesn’t mean those little organs don’t need taking care of. Hearing tests, ear infections and protective measures all form a part of her first year.
In a 2012 paper by Dr Iain Butler published in Continuing Medical Education, hearing loss is identified as the most common birth defect affecting newborn babies across the world. He estimates that about 6 000 babies are born in South Africa each year with hearing loss, and says that this number increases throughout early childhood as a
Is your baby hearing everything she needs to?
result of infections or other causes. This is why hearing tests are necessary.
“Hearing tests are vitally important in order to promote early intervention for hearing loss,” says Mandy van den Berg, an audiologist at Johannesburg’s Flora Clinic. She goes on to explain that the sooner any hearing loss is identified, the sooner action can be taken. This is very important as hearing loss can lead to delays in speech and language development, and can lead to difficulties at school later on, especially where intellectual and socio-emotional development is concerned. “If a hearing loss is identified, and appropriate management (hearing aids or cochlear implant) put in place before six months of age, your child has the auditory capacity to develop normal speech and language,” she adds. However, too many children are diagnosed with hearing impairment later in life, which is often too late for these core skills to take root.
Your baby’s first hearing test should take place in hospital shortly after birth. It’s a quick test that your baby doesn’t even feel. It’s often done when your baby is sleeping and the results show whether all the structures that your baby needs to hear well are present and in working order.
“The next test should be done at around 12 months of age, at an audiologist’s office in a soundproof booth,” says Mandy. “Although the test done at birth told us about baby’s hearing organs, in most cases the auditory nerve is not tested at this time. This is what makes this second test so vital. At the one-year test, the auditory nerve and the way in which the brain processes sound is tested. Best of all, you can see your baby’s reaction to really soft sound inputs. Unless you notice any further change in our child’s hearing, it is safe to leave the next hearing test until when they go to school.”
PROTECTION IS BETTER THAN CORRECTION
Sound is a delicate sense and hearing loss can occur quite easily. “The idea of hearing loss may bring up an image of a grandparent, but our actions as adults, teenagers or even younger impact how well we hear (or don’t hear) later on,”
explains Mandy. “What’s tricky about noise-induced hearing loss is that it can happen gradually and often has no symptoms. Yet, once there is damage it’s too late – hearing doesn’t come back. About five million children worldwide have noise-induced hearing loss or damage as a result of loud sounds, most of which is entirely preventable.” She suggests the following preventative measures to protect those tiny ears:
Be careful of noisy toys Have a look at the annual Sight & Hearing Association’s Noisy Toys Study (at sightandhearing.org/ Services/noisytoyslist) to see if any of the products listed are in your baby’s toy box. Use hearing protectors when mowing the lawn or at a concert For babies and kids, this is a no-brainer. Ear muffs are best, and for older children you can use ear plugs. When using earphones, turn it down Ear buds have affected hearing in a real way – and not a positive one. We have no control over how loud our children are putting the sound on the phone or ipad. Noise-cancelling headphones are often a good idea, as kids won’t need to turn the volume up to drown out outside noise. Teach your older children that noise
today impacts their hearing later Noiseinduced hearing loss doesn’t occur overnight. What they do now may keep them from needing hearing aids at all or needing them earlier than expected.
SIGNS OF TROUBLE
Watching your baby to see how she responds to sounds is probably the easiest way to spot a problem. “If by 6 months of age your baby doesn’t turn her head towards a sound or is not soothed by your voice when she can’t see you, it is a good idea to have her hearing tested. Another major factor is delayed speech – if your baby is not starting to babble by around nine months of age, or if she screeches in a monotonous way instead of using ‘baby talk’, all may not be well.” She adds that a complaint of ringing in the ears should set alarm bells off, as it often indicate hair cell damage in the cochleas.
If you’re worried by anything it’s best to have it checked out by your baby’s paediatrician or an audiologist sooner rather than later.