Newborn hearing screening begins today

Up to two babies in every 1,000 are born with a hearing loss in one or both ears

From today, all babies born at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) will be offered a free hearing screening test prior to their discharge from hospital.

CUMH is the first hospital in the country to implement the new National Hearing Screening Programme. Until now, a baby’s hearing has not generally been tested until their seven-to-nine month development check.

Currently in Ireland, one to two babies in every 1,000 are born with a hearing loss in one or both ears.

“The earlier that a hearing loss can be picked up in a baby, the better the outcome that baby will have. It is therefore very important to screen all babies at an early stage. Most babies born with a hearing loss are born into families with no history of hearing loss,” explained consultant ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon, Mr Peter O’Sullivan, who is also chairperson of the Cork Newborn Hearing Screening Implementation Group.

The test is available free of charge for all babies. Any baby who does not have a clear response in one or both ears from the test will be sent for a full audiological (hearing) assessment at an audiology clinic in Cork University Hospital (CUH) shortly after discharge.

The hearing test will be carried out by a trained hearing screener while the baby is settled or sleeping, usually at the mother’s bedside. The screener uses two non-invasive tests to screen the newborns’ hearing. Neither test causes any discomfort to the baby.

According to CUMH consultant neonatologist, Dr Brendan Paul Murphy, this new screening programme aims to identify hearing impairment as soon as possible after birth ‘to give babies a better chance of developing speech and language skills and to make the most of social and emotional interaction from an early age’.

“We now have a programme in place to deliver this to all our newborns. Babies who spend time in a special care baby unit have a higher incidence of hearing loss. These babies will be tested during their time in the unit,” Dr Murphy explained.

The referral rates for babies to the HSE audiology clinic who fail the test is expected to be relatively low – about 2-4% of all babies tested. The referral does not necessarily mean that a baby has or will have a hearing loss. It could also be due to a number of other factors, including:

-The baby may have been too unsettled at the time of the screening test
-The baby may have had fluid, or a temporary blockage, in the ears after the birth
-There may have been too much background noise in the room when the screening test was carried out.

Babies born through the HSE’s homebirths scheme will also be included in the programme. Arrangements are in place to have their hearing tested at an outpatients clinic at the hospital within weeks of the babies’ birth.

Meanwhile, according to the CEO of CUH, Tony McNamara, this programme will benefit both babies and their parents.

“Parents benefit from knowing their child has a hearing loss early as they are empowered to make informed choices and get the support they need. Early identification of hearing loss, followed by good support from health, education and social care can dramatically improve the child’s language and communication, leading to better educational outcomes,” he explained.

The introduction of a newborn hearing screening test was just one of a number of recommendations made by the National Audiology Review Group. Its report, the HSE National Audiology Review, which was published earlier this month, was highly critical of many aspects of audiological services in Ireland. For more on that report, click here