Hearing is one of the first senses to develop, and in most babies is fully developed long before they are born. Because an infant’s hearing is so keen, even before birth, experts recommend parents talk to their baby in the womb. Talking to your baby in utero is especially important for the dad or partner because the baby won’t hear their other parent’s voice as often as they hear mom’s.
Hearing is the most sensitive of the five senses upon birth, and babies often startle at sudden, loud noises. Newborns also recognize their mom’s voice at birth and will begin to turn their hard towards a familiar sound within the first month.
In addition to mom’s voice, newborns prefer female voices because they can hear the high-pitch frequency of a higher voice easier. So when talking to your baby, speak in soft, higher tones, and use a sing-songy cadence. Of course, you should still use actual words, and avoid baby talk, when talking to your baby, but even if you’re just narrating the steps of dinner as you cook, the exposure to your voice and vocabulary benefits their brain and language development.
Most babies have a hearing screening test at the hospital within a day of birth. However, even if your baby passes the hearing screening, you should be aware of the signs of hearing loss and know when to speak with your pediatrician.
Causes of Hearing Loss in Infants
There are several reasons your baby may experience hearing loss, and the causes aren’t always apparent at birth. For example, if both parents carry a recessive trait for deafness, there is likely no family history. There are currently no tests for hearing loss in the womb, so it is essential your newborn be tested within a few days of birth.
Outside of a genetic cause for hearing loss, babies born with low birth weight (under 3.3 pounds) may be at risk for hearing loss due to an underdeveloped auditory system. Additionally, certain viruses during pregnancy, like rubella and cytomegalovirus, may cause deafness in infants.
Babies who experience frequent or chronic ear infections may also be at risk for hearing loss. Therefore it is essential to keep an eye out for signs of ear infections. Fluid buildup, which occurs during an ear infection, can muffle your baby’s hearing and result in speech and language delays.
Signs of Ear Infections
- Tugging or pulling on their ears
- Excessive crankiness or crying
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Visibile drainage from the ear
- Ear pain, mainly when lying down
Since babies and children can develop hearing loss after passing a screening test, parents should be aware of the signs. Your child’s pediatrician should also follow routine screenings as they grow and develop. If you suspect your child is suffering from hearing loss at any time, it is crucial to speak with their doctor.
Signs of Hearing Loss in Infants & Toddlers
- They don’t startle or cry at loud noises
- They don’t stop moving or crying in response to your voice
3 to 4 Months
- They don’t turn toward a sound, in particular, loud ones
5 to 6 Months
- They don’t notice you or other people until they see you
6 to 7 Months
- They prefer vibratory sounds that they can feel
- They don’t babble or try to repeat sounds
- They haven’t started saying simple words such as “Mama,” “Dada,” or “bye-bye.”
- Their Speech is hard to understand (many words and short phrases should be recognizable)
- They don’t repeat words you say
- They don’t respond when called by name
- They appear to hear some sounds but not others
What If My Baby Fails the Hearing Screening?
If your baby fails the hearing screening, the first step is further tests by an auditory specialist. The hospital staff or doctor may also direct you to consult an ENT, ear, nose, and throat doctor to perform additional tests to uncover the cause of hearing loss.
If your baby is diagnosed with permanent hearing loss, it is essential you seek care immediately. Multiple studies have shown that children identified with hearing loss by three months old and who receive early intervention by six months develop better vocabularies and language skills.
While it might feel overwhelming to discover your baby has hearing loss, there are many resources and supports for children and families to make the process easier for everyone to adapt.
Per the CDC, only 1.7% of infants tested annually show signs of hearing loss in the United States; however, by the age of 3, 5% of children 3-17 have reported hearing loss. Therefore, while it is uncommon for children to have hearing loss, it is still imperative parents get their newborns screened and follow all recommendations for future screenings.
In many cases, hearing loss is the cause of temporary situations like fluid in the ears or ear infections. However, even if your baby has permanent hearing loss, there are plenty of ways to support them and bond with them as they grow and develop, and most children with hearing loss grow up to live happy healthy lives!