Last updated on Feb 3rd, 2021 at 01:25 pm

Hearing is a critical part of a child’s development during the first few years. Even mild or partial hearing loss can affect a child’s ability to speak and understand language. According to the South African Association of Audiologists (SAAA), two to four in every 1 000 babies are born with hearing loss. The good news is that hearing problems can be treated if they’re caught early.

When should my baby’s hearing be tested?

Your baby’s hearing should ideally be tested at birth. Most hospitals have a resident audiologist on staff who can do the tests. If the hospital where you’re giving birth doesn’t have this service, ensure that you get your little one’s ears tested before the three- to six-month-mark.

ALSO SEE: 5 screening tests your newborn baby needs

Treatment for hearing loss is most effective if it’s started when a baby’s six months old. “The most important time for language development is up until the age of two years. The babbling, copying sounds and intonation speech before two years are important building blocks for your child’s language,” says audiologist, Janine Schnugh.

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Will it hurt?

No. It’s quick and painless and can even be done while baby sleeps. A probe is gently inserted into your baby’s ear. A machine produces sounds that travel through your baby’s hearing system. In the inner ear, the cochlea picks up the sounds and produces a type of echo in response. The echo travels back out of the ear and is measured by the probe.  “If the responses are within the appropriate range, your baby passes the test. If she doesn’t pass the test, the test should be repeated within two weeks,” explains Schnugh.

What happens if my baby doesn’t pass the test?

It doesn’t necessarily mean she has a hearing problem. Many factors can influence results. “Your baby may be moving too much to get a reliable response, or there could be vernix (a waxy substance that sometimes coats the skin of newborns) or other obstructions in the outer ear canal. She could have a middle ear infection or middle ear fluid,” says Schnugh.  If your baby doesn’t pass the second test, more tests will be done to investigate the problem.

Will I be able to tell if my baby can’t hear?

“You won’t always be able to tell if your baby can hear or not,” says paediatrician, Dr Dewald Buitendag. Schnugh adds that the signs of partial hearing loss are very subtle. They often only surface when the speech and language milestones are delayed. However, if the hearing loss is significant, you’ll more than likely be able to tell.

Signs of hearing loss

  • Your baby doesn’t respond to your voice.
  • Your baby isn’t startled by loud noises.
  • She stops babbling or making noises.

Baby’s hearing milestones

  • A newborn baby startles when she hears a loud sound.
  • At around two months, your baby usually becomes quiet when she hears your voice.
  • Between four and five months old, she’ll look in the direction of a loud sound.
  • At six months, she starts to imitate sounds and babble.
  • At around nine months, she’ll turn her head in the direction of softer sounds.
  • At around one, she responds to music and says “ma-ma”, “da-da” and “ta-ta”.

ALSO SEE: First year milestones

What causes hearing loss in babies?

Many factors can cause hearing loss.  “The outer, middle or inner ear can be impaired, which can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss,” says Schnugh.

Hearing loss can occur if a child:

  • Was born prematurely
  • Had complications at birth and was admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
  • Had severe jaundice and needed a blood transfusion
  • Was given medication that could lead to hearing loss, such as aminoglycoside antibiotics, furosemide, diuretics and ibuprofen anti-inflammatories
  • Has a family history of childhood hearing loss
  • Had frequent ear infections
  • Had infections like meningitis
  • Was exposed to very loud sounds or noises – even briefly.