Yet, there we were. The postpartum nurse wheeled my tiny infant – asleep and swaddled in her hospital bassinet – back into the recovery room following a series of standard newborn tests and pokes. I was shocked when the nurse told me that my daughter had failed her hearing exam and that she'd need to undergo a different, longer type of hearing test.
She failed that test too. I didn't allow myself to freak out until my daughter failed the follow-up test. What did this even mean? I couldn't help but wonder how hearing loss might affect my baby – and our whole family. Could she hear anything at all, or was all sound just a bit muffled? Was it temporary? Would she need hearing aids, years of speech therapy? How worried should I be right now?
I took a deep breath and tried to put things into perspective. After nearly 10 months of waiting to meet my baby, she was finally here. She was healthy. (And she smelled delicious.) She was perfect to me. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for her with an audiologist and took baby number four home later that day.
We didn't treat her differently than we had our other newborns. She didn't seem to act any differently, either. Oddly though, I felt a bit protective about telling people that our baby had failed her newborn hearing screening. I joked with my husband and close friend in private that I hoped her hearing turned out fine because I suck at American Sign Language. In reality, I would have done everything within my power – including dedicating myself to mastering ASL – in order to help my child thrive.
At her well-child checkups, our pediatrician reassured me that sometimes newborns can fail their first hearing screening because of fluid in the middle ear or debris (like vernix) in the ear canal. Or simply because the room was too noisy, or the baby was too fussy during the testing. I secretly hoped this was the case for our daughter.
A few weeks later, we followed up with an audiologist. The testing was no big deal. A tympanogram tested the condition of her middle ear and the mobility of her eardrum. (Both sides came back flat, which is abnormal.) Another test involved using a little ear-bud-type device – in one ear at a time – which emitted various frequencies at different volumes and then measured my baby's ability to hear them. The results for this weren't spectacular, either.
I asked a ton of questions. The audiologist told me that they were mainly documenting her progress for now. The culprit for her diminished hearing, the audiologist explained, was likely earwax and/or fluid. But, even if she did have fluid in her ears, that particular office didn't recommend putting tubes in a child's ears until after they were 1 year old. So we followed up with the audiologist every six weeks or so – and eventually every three months – in order to track her progress.
My daughter was also referred to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, who examined her ears and removed some earwax before her follow-up audiology appointment.
Slowly but surely, my daughter's hearing test results have improved. By the 9-month-mark, her results were nearly normal.
The verdict: My daughter failed her newborn screening not because she was born with permanent hearing loss, but because of vernix, earwax, and fluid. The issue gradually resolved itself over time. She's 13 months old now, and another follow-up with her audiologist will help determine whether her hearing is normal at this point, or whether we should consider tubes.
My baby girl is otherwise right on track developmentally. She dances to music, says, "mama," "dada," "caca" (cracker), "ball," adorable versions of each of her siblings' names, and roughly a dozen other words. She's hilarious and frustrating and exhausting all at the same time.
I've learned that failing a newborn hearing test doesn't always mean permanent hearing loss – and it's actually more common than most people might think.
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