Why you need to screen your newborn baby for hearing loss

Just like immunisations and regular health check-ups, screening for hearing loss is an important part of your newborn’s wellbeing. Even if you don’t suspect any form of hearing loss in your child, early detection and intervention is essential for your child’s development.

While some children have risk factors for hearing loss, almost half of all children born with a hearing loss have no known risk factors.

Each Australian state and territory runs its own universal newborn hearing screening program. This is because early intervention ensures that your child receives the support they need. All newborns are offered a simple, non-invasive hearing test. Even if no hearing loss is detected from a single screening, it’s good to get regular check-ups in case things change.

Here’s what you need to know.

Early Intervention vs Late Identification

The National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) is the research arm of Australian Hearing. In 2005, NAL started a long-term study into the outcomes of children with hearing loss. Part of this study investigated the differences between early versus late identification.

Results have shown that, at age five, children whose hearing loss were identified early and who received hearing aids before six months of age have better speech and language outcomes than children whose hearing loss were identified later.

The screening process

A hearing screen test can quickly determine whether your baby is at risk of having a form of hearing loss. Testing is done by either Automated Auditory Brainstem Response (AABR) or Otoacoustic Emissions (OAEs) – usually within a few hours of birth or just before your baby leaves hospital.

If your baby passes the screening test, it’s very unlikely they have a hearing loss at the time of the test. If a clear pass result is not obtained, your baby is referred for further diagnostic testing at a hospital or audiology centre. If this testing confirms a hearing loss, you will be referred to a specialist to discuss your options.

AABR testing

Automated Auditory Brainstem Response (AABR) screening is a test used for newborns. This test is completely harmless for your baby and is widely used by professionals.

The tester will attach leads to your baby’s forehead, back of baby’s neck and behind baby’s shoulder using sticky pads. They will then place small earphone ‘cups’ over your baby’s ears. The earphones make soft clicking sounds and the leads measure the response from your baby’s ears.

If the first test gives an irregular result, don’t worry. This can occur for a number of reasons:

  • Fluid or other matter has entered the ear canal during the birth process and is blocking the ear;

  • A temporary build-up of fluid behind the eardrum; or

  • Your baby is unsettled.

Newborn screening tests in Australia

New South Wales operates the Statewide Infant Screening – Hearing (SWISH) program. Before your baby leaves hospital, screening is conducted by specially trained, enrolled nurses and midwives. Some screening is conducted as an outpatient service in community health centres. Your baby is offered a second screening if they do not pass the first. If your baby does not pass the second screening, you’ll be referred to one of three paediatric networks in NSW.

The Victorian Infant Hearing Screening Program (VIHSP) screens the hearing of all Victorian newborn babies in their first few weeks of life. The screening is performed by trained hearing screeners and is usually carried out at your baby’s bedside in hospital while they sleep. If a pass result is not obtained after two tests, a VIHSP coordinator will contact you to arrange an audiology appointment. 

In Queensland, the Healthy Hearing Program provides free hearing screening, ideally prior to your baby’s discharge from hospital. Testing is carried out by specially trained midwives and nurses. A baby who does not pass the first test is screened a second time. If your baby requires further assessment you’ll be referred to an audiologist for more detailed testing. 

Western Australia’s Newborn Hearing Screening Program offers screening in public, private, metropolitan and regional maternity services across the state. 

In Tasmania, the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening Program offers all babies a hearing screening. Inpatient screening is provided at the state’s major hospitals before you leave with your baby. If your baby is not seen during this time, an outpatient appointment is arranged. 

The Australian Capital Territory Newborn Hearing Screening Program is offered at Canberra Hospitals and is performed before your newborn leaves hospital. 

In South Australia the Universal Neonatal Hearing Screening (UNHS) program is a statewide service coordinated by the Women’s and Children’s Health Network. The program provides free hearing screening to all newborn babies and aims to screen all newborns in the state before they reach eight weeks of age. 

The Northern Territory offers the Newborn Hearing Screening Program at Royal Darwin Hospital. 

 For more information about hearing aids and services for children, contact us.