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Newborn Screening Tests Miss Some Babies' Hearing Problems

An infant gets an ear checked.

Most newborns have their hearing tested while they are still in the hospital, but those tests may not catch all severe hearing loss. One-third of children who were treated for deafness with cochlear implants had actually passed the newborn screening, according to a new study.

That's important, because parents and pediatricians often don't realize that a baby has a serious hearing problem. Most states require that newborns' hearing be tested before they go home from the hospital. About 2 or 3 of every 1,000 children are born deaf or hard of hearing. The earlier those children get help, the better they do at developing language skills.

Researchers at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago looked at the records of 127 children who had hearing problems severe enough to be treated with cochlear implants, and found that one-third of them had passed the newborn hearing test. The results were published in the latest Archives of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

The failure may not be the fault of the newborn screening, but simply the result of the fact that some hearing loss develops slowly. Babies at risk for progressive deafness include those who had cytomegalovirus infections, and those who were in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Those cases wouldn't be obvious in the first month of life, which is the time recommended for universal screening by the United States Preventive Services Task Force. The cost ranges from $10 to $50.

"The situation raises the issue of whether repeating mandatory hearing screening for all children before 1 year of age would be beneficial," the study authors write.

In any case, newborn screening, though imperfect, does speed diagnosis of hearing problems overall, according to the study authors. They compared children treated with cochlear implants before 2003, when the state of Illinois required universal newborn hearing screening. Children who were screened had hearing problems diagnosed when they were 11 months old on average, compared to 21 months in children born before universal screening.

So new parents, be happy if your baby passed that hearing test at the hospital --- but also know that it's not an iron-clad guarantee. Hearing testing is inexpensive. Don't be afraid to ask your pediatrician for another test if you're worried.

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