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What it means if your child fails his/her newborn hearing screening

February 27, 2013

Amid all of the excitement of a newborn child, there are several tests that your baby will undergo shortly after birth while the baby is still in the newborn nursery. One of those tests is a hearing screening, which checks to see if the most basic parts of the hearing mechanism are intact. We will discuss the newborn hearing screening, how it works, what the results mean, and what you should do if your child has an abnormal test result.

Before we get started, watch this short animation to understand how hearing takes place:

The newborn hearing screening is part of a public health program for early intervention that identifies children with early onset hearing loss in order to facilitate early treatment. Children who experience even mild hearing loss can have significant delays in their speech and language development.

Otoacoustic Emissions test

There are two main tests that are currently used to perform a newborn hearing screening. The first is called otoacoustic emissions, or OAEs. This test checks the hearing pathway from the outside world to the cochlea (the spiral-shaped structure in the inner ear). It doesn’t test the second half of the process- the pathway from the cochlea to the brain. In order to have a normal OAE test, the hair cells of the cochlea must be present and healthy. These hair cells actually produce a very slight sound when sound is administered into the ear, and that is what is being measured.

In the screening, a small probe that contains a microphone and a speaker is inserted into the ear. The probe releases a sound which must be funneled to the eardrum, vibrate the eardrum, vibrate the hearing bones, and vibrate the membranes of the cochlea to vibrate these hair cells, which, in turn, produce a sound. The probe that produces the initial stimulus sound is able to detect the sound produced by the hair cells, or the otoacoustic emission.

OAEs are a good screening test, but have several important limitations. First, if there is a blockage of the ear canal, whether from ear wax, fluid or vernix, or a developmental malformation of the ear canal, the OAEs will be absent. Similarly, an abnormality in the ear or eardrum that blocks the conduction of sound will impair OAEs. That is because the sound cannot be conducted to the inner ear effectively to vibrate the hair cells.  Secondly, one may have a perfectly intact cochlea with normal hair cells and have a profound hearing loss due to a break in the pathway from the cochlea to the brain, an example of which is auditory neuropathy where there is abnormal development of the cochlear/auditory nerve.

Automated Auditory Brainstem Response testing

The second test is called automated auditory brainstem response testing, or AABR. This is a newer test which checks the integrity of the entire pathway of hearing, including the area beyond the cochlea up to the brain.  During this test, there is a probe which is placed into the ear which administers a broad-band click stimulus at a consistent level. This device then measures, with sensors that are placed on the head, the passing of that sound from the probe, through the ear, into the cochlear/auditory nerve and into the pathway from the brainstem to the brain. This test is very good at ruling out children who do not have hearing loss and ruling in children who do. Each ear is measured independently as in the other test.

While this test evaluates more of the hearing pathway, it also has some limitations. First, this test is a pass/fail test. There is no interpretation possible. Therefore, a failed test must be followed up with a formal auditory brainstem response (ABR) test.  Second, the click stimulus is not frequency specific.  It generally tests from 1000 to 4000 Hz which are the frequencies thought to be most important for speech and language, but there is much more to our hearing range than is tested with a click stimulus. Finally, as with the OAE test, the AABR depends on the conduction of the administered sound into the inner ear and hearing pathway. Therefore any abnormality in the outer or middle ear could compromise the result of this test.

Given the relative strengths and weaknesses of these tests, many institutions are using a combination of tests for newborn hearing screening.  Now that we have discussed these tests and what they measure, in part two of our series we will discuss how we deal with a failed newborn hearing screening and what follow-up is involved.