As a newborn hearing screener, I occasionally have to give parents the news that their baby didn’t pass. However, I’m always careful to reassure them that this isn’t a cause for panic. There are a number of factors which can cause a newborn to fail the initial hearing screening.
There might be a simple explanation.
The simplest is birthing debris. Yes, it sounds gross, but think of it as being like earwax. It gets in the baby’s ear as a kind of fluid, then dries up and works its way out. Often, when babies come back in a couple weeks, the debris has all fallen out and they pass the hearing screening.
Birthing debris is particularly common in babies delivered by C-section. The squeezing of the baby’s head during a natural delivery can remove or prevent debris. C-section doesn’t give them that chance.
It’s also possible that some unknown factor other than hearing loss causes them to fail. Your screener will probably interpret this as potential birthing debris.
Whether it’s birthing debris or something else, it’s always important to make a follow-up appointment.
Around 80% of our follow-up babies pass the clinical hearing screening. Whether the debris is gone or their ears have simply matured a little, they’re fully healthy and perfectly capable of hearing. This is always great news for the parents.
But because of that 20% who don’t pass, it’s important to get the secondary test.
If the baby has a hearing loss and doesn’t get retested, it may result in certain developmental delays. Communication is an important part of a child’s early development. With a hearing loss, a baby can still learn to sign. But if you don’t know and don’t start teaching them early enough, then it may be harder later on.
Depending on the source of the baby’s hearing difficulty (or deafness) there may be steps you can take to repair it. These steps often work better earlier and (as mentioned above) can be important to your child’s development.
For example, surgery can correct some hearing problems. Or a simple hearing aid might be all your child needs. In other cases, you might want to look into cochlear implants which work if the hearing loss doesn’t result from certain causes. It helps, for example if the auditory nerve is still intact.
So remember: Don’t panic. Do take it seriously.
Hearing screenings are one of the many chances you’ll have to make sure your baby gets the best start possible. May your baby be happy, healthy, and (most important of all) loved!