Newborn Hearing Screenings – Progress Made

September is National Newborn Screening Awareness Month in recognition of all the tests infants undergo in order to catch any disorders or diseases as early as possible. In celebration of  the continuing progress of improving hearing health, let’s look at a brief history of newborn hearing screening programs, and the progress made since inception.

Early hearing loss detection and intervention is paramount

Did you know that almost all babies born in the United States are required by law to be screened for hearing loss prior to leaving the hospital? Considering that approximately three out of every 1,000 babies born in the country present with hearing loss at birth, this simple and inexpensive screening process makes a lot of sense yet it was not always required in the past. In fact, it wasn’t until 1992 when Rhode Island became the first state to require universal newborn hearing screening.

In this blog we have often stressed the importance of early detection and treatment of hearing loss in adults. But in babies and children, timely action is even more critical. Research has consistently shown that the most intensive period of speech and language development occurs before the age of three.

Unidentified hearing loss in infants can have a devastating impact on a child’s education, linguistic, social, and psychological development. It is paramount that hearing loss is diagnosed as early as possible so that intervention can ensure timely acquisition of language and social skills.

The push toward universal newborn hearing screening

Hearing health experts and educators have long pushed for nationwide newborn hearing screening. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1993 when the National Institute of Health (NIH) endorsed this recommendation that states began to take appropriate legislative action. These efforts were reinforced when Congress passed the Newborn and Infant Hearing Screening and Intervention Act in 1999 to help coordinate and fund these state-level programs.

Today, newborn hearing screening has become the standard of care. Forty-three states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have mandated screening programs. As a result, approximately 95 percent of all babies born in the United States are screened for hearing loss shortly after birth — typically before they leave the hospital.

Looking beyond the identification of hearing loss

Establishing these screening programs has led to remarkable success in identifying hearing loss early. Studies conducted on the screening’s effectiveness have shown that such government programs lowered the age of identification by as much as two to four years.

However, beyond early identification lies the equally critical task of ensuring these hard of hearing children receive timely and appropriate intervention. This is currently the major challenge ahead of us. The NIH reports that almost half of the babies who do not pass the screening are lost to follow-up, meaning these children who may have hearing loss are not receiving the proper services and support they need. Organizations like the NIH and the Joint Committee on Infant Hearing are working with researchers, federal and state program directors, and policy-makers to develop strategies and programs to reduce this number, and to improve the quality of intervention for these children.

Scientists are continuing to look into the causes and genetic components of congenital hearing loss so that potential hearing issues can be detected even before birth. Studies are also underway to identify factors that can facilitate the timely development of speech, language, cognitive, and psycho-social skills in children with hearing loss in order to improve intervention strategies.

We have come a long way in diagnosing hearing loss, even in babies a few hours old. But until we can quickly and effectively overcome the implications of hearing loss through amplification or exposing babies to other methods of communication like sign language, newborn hearing screenings are just the beginning.