Hearing Loss in Babies

Hearing Loss in Babies

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly 12,000 babies are born each year in the United States with a hearing impairment. It is estimated that serious hearing loss occurs in about one to three of every 1,000 healthy newborns, and in two to four of every 100 babies in newborn intensive care units. Without screening or testing, hearing loss may not be noticed until the baby is more than 1 year old. If hearing loss is not detected until later years, there will not be stimulation of the brain's hearing centers. This can affect the maturation and development of hearing, and can delay speech and language. Social and emotional development and success in school may also be affected.

Most hearing loss is congenital (present at birth), but some babies develop hearing loss after they are born. Hearing loss is more likely in premature babies and babies with respiratory problems who have required long-term use of breathing machines, those with previous infections, and those taking certain medications.

Because of these risks, many health organizations including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommend universal infant hearing screening. This means all newborn babies should be screened for hearing loss.

Most often, the parents are the first to detect hearing loss in their child. Unfortunately, many children with severe hearing loss from birth are not diagnosed until 2 1/2 or 3 years of age.

What are the different types of hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be categorized by many different types. Two types of hearing loss are sensorineural and conductive. Both types of hearing loss can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired.

  • sensorineural - a loss of function within the inner ear or with the connection to the brain. Causes of this type of hearing loss include:

    • congenital factors - conditions present at birth, such as:

      • infection by the mother with toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus, herpes, or syphilis

      • genetic factors and syndromes the child has at birth

      • low birthweight

      • hereditary (in the family)

    • acquired

      • loud noise exposure
      • trauma
      • infections
      • damage from certain medications that can be harmful to the ears

  • conductive hearing loss - a problem in the outer or middle ear where sound waves are not sent to the inner ear correctly. Conductive hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss in children and is usually acquired. Factors that may cause this type of hearing loss are:

    • congenital factors - conditions present at birth, such as:

      • anomalies of the pinna (the outside of the ear)

      • anomalies of the tympanic membrane (eardrum)

      • anomalies of the external ear canal

      • anomalies of the ossicles (the three tiny bones that deliver the sound waves to the middle ear)

    • acquired

      • excessive wax
      • foreign bodies in the ear canal, such as beads or popcorn kernels
      • tumors of the middle ear
      • problems with the eustachian tube
      • ear infections such as otitis media
      • chronic ear infections with fluid in the middle ear
      • perforation of the eardrum
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