Children's Hearing

Every three out of 1,000 children is born deaf or hearing impaired. But half of newborns who fail hearing screenings don't receive follow-up diagnoses and therapy. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

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The State of Texas mandates all children receive a hearing screening at birth. The screening is designed to show whether or not future evaluations are needed for the child. But Dr. Jennifer Wickesberg says nearly half of newborns who fail the test don't receive follow-up until they are much older. Wickesberg is the director of audiology at The Center for Hearing and Speech, a non-profit formerly known as Houston School for Deaf Children. She says there are two main reasons for the lack of follow-up.

"Here in the city of Houston and several hospitals do have waiting lists that prevent families from getting in in a timely fashion. Or the other obstacle that some families face may be a communication barrier as well."

Houston has a long waiting list for follow-up exams because of the nature of the diagnostic process. Newborns who fail the intial screening are supposed to undergo an Auditory Brainstem Response test. The non-invasive procedure takes up to four hours to perform, which means some facilities can only screen six or eight patients per week.

"We place four electrodes on their head, two behind each of their ears and two on their forehead. At that time, small insert earphones are placed within the child's ear and sound is then delivered. The sound starts out pretty loud to where the child we know would be able to hear if their hearing was normal. And we are tracing the brain waves that the child elicits to that sound stimulation going into their ear canal."

After diagnosis, a newborn can be fitted with a hearing aid adjusted to the proper levels for their impairment. Wickesberg says an early diagnosis is critical to ensure a child doesn't fall behind in cognitive development.

"Children need an entire year of listening before they start saying their first words, so weeks, hours, minutes are critical to spoken language development. The other thing that the hearing aid allows is that bond between a mother and a baby, talking to your child, watching them smile, watching them coo back to you, repeating the sounds and syllables that their mother makes as they prepare to use those in spoken language."

For those parents who are concerned about a child's hearing, Wickesberg says pay attention to whether a child is startled by loud noises, if they respond to their name or familiar sounds and if they are able to mimic speech sounds. And if there is any doubt, schedule an appointment with an audiologist. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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