Does My Baby Have My Hearing Loss?

If you’re a parent – what did you worry about when expecting your first child?  Probably the standards – will all the regular bits be in good working order, will it be healthy and maybe, as a bonus, will it be gorgeous, too?

If you’re a hearing parent, you probably did not worry about your baby being born deaf.

And why would you? Approximately three in 1000 babies are born with some degree of hearing loss, so the odds are reasonably good that your child would be born ‘hearing’.  Besides, chances are no one told you to add deafness to your worry list.

And I didn’t worry about it, either. I swear to heaven, even with my own hearing loss that wasn’t diagnosed until age two and a half, I don’t recall thinking about it during pregnancy. Perhaps it was because hearing loss didn’t ‘run in the family’ – although I now know that congenital hearing loss has many causes.  A more likely reason was that I was having a wonderful, viable pregnancy after having lost two previous ones, and this issue just didn’t seem to matter.

But what I did worry about: how was I was going to hear the baby? I was frightened that my hearing would put my child in danger. What if I didn’t hear him cry, or burp, or call for me? What if he was lost and I couldn’t find him?  And all those things did occur at some point, to some minor degree. The nicest gift the Hearing Husband ever gave me was reassuring me – as I blubbered about some near baby-mishap – that parenting is 50% luck. With three older children, he could say this with conviction. And sure enough, here we are seventeen years later, alive and accounted for.

The other night, my son came roaring into the room where I was settling in to watch a juicy episode of my favorite show, due to start any minute.

“I found a bunch of my baby pictures – let’s look at them together, Mum!”  

What a choice to make – to look at baby pictures of your son, with your son – or watch zombies get smushed? I did what any loving mother would do.

“Ok, but make it snappy – The Walking Dead’s almost on.”

Looking at pictures of my chubby-cheeked toddler reminded me of another photo – a sleeping four month-old having an auditory brainstem response (ABR) hearing test.  This was 1995, a few years before Universal Newborn Hearing Screening was introduced in Ontario, but because of my severe congenital loss, Joel was considered high risk.  In his first year of life, he had three hearing tests.  

For the first one, the ABR test that measures the brainstem’s response to sound, the baby must be asleep, so Joel had to arrive at the hospital sleep deprived. (The fact that I, the mom, was already severely sleep deprived was not good enough.) This meant keeping the baby up late, getting him up early and not feeding him his breakfast. Up to that point, it was stressful but do-able.

Until the drive to the hospital.

Have you ever tried to keep a sleepy baby awake? As my husband drove the car as fast as possible, I jiggled and wiggled Joel. He started to slip away into sleepy-land so I started singing, loudly. He smiled, his eyes rolled up in his head and he was gone.  Luckily, he perked up at the hospital and when the little electrodes were placed on his head he smiled again and conked out. And that’s when it hit me.

What if Joel had hearing loss!  There had been no signs in these early months, but seeing him lying there with things stuck to his head, the possibility that he might have my same lifelong hearing challenges  shocked me into tears.

But his hearing was ‘normal’ and subsequent tests confirmed he did not have hearing loss. The infant distraction test (IDT) was more fun than the ABR.  Eight-month-old Joel sat on my lap playing with a toy and when a sound came from a corner of the room,  he would turn towards it and laugh at a mechanical monkey playing a drum.

If Joel had been born with hearing loss, I know that like other parents who receive the diagnosis, we would have been upset. But the good news is that intervention would have been immediate and we would have been able to make choices to give Joel the best shot at optimal communication, for effective language. And if I knew then what I know and believe now, we would have combined technical strategies with spoken language – as well as training in signed language.  As my son grew up, I watched closely for signs of hearing loss, having him tested again at age eight. For now, it’s tickety-boo.  Maybe he gets his good hearing, like his good looks, from his dad, but I’ve trained him to say, “Yes, I look like my dad, but I have my mom’s wit, charm and intelligence.”   And he can say this with a straight face.

Raised by a hard of hearing advocate, Joel understands why he needs to protect his hearing and the consequences of noise damage. He took classical guitar for five years and could make the angels weep with the beauty of his playing, yet now he’s happier screeching out chords on an electric guitar and a wicked amplifier.  When I get in the car after he’s been driving it, the radio volume makes me jump.  So, once again, I must weep and worry.

Still, I’m grateful for newborn hearing screening.  If you or someone you know is expecting a baby, make sure the child’s hearing is checked at birth. It’s the first step to a good life of language and communication.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

4 Comments

  1. Every attempt should be made to have your child hear if you are a hearing parent. Now that I am near the age of 80 years old I am so grateful my mother gave me the ability to hear and speak. Today there is so much technology and information for hearing parents with deaf and/or children with even a slight hearing loss.

  2. As I read this blog it saddened me that so much negativty was expressed for being deaf or hard of hearing. Although I am a hearing person, my partner is Deaf as many of our friends. All of them are very successful professionals in a variety of fields.

    I know the medical establishment tends to make deafness a negative condition, but I encourage all parents whose babies are born hard of hearing/deaf that they explore the deaf world. So many children who have hearing loss are forced to behave like fully hearing people when they would be so much more successful as kids and adults if they were provided a bi-bi education (sign language and written English) and interacted with the deaf community and other deaf kids.

    For many children clochlear implants are not the answer even thought the medical establishment says that it will make your child like a hearing person. So many kids have holes drilled into their heads at very young ages for the implant only to find out that it didn’t make them a hearing person. With an implant kids have to be very careful and usually cannot participate in sports, they spend many hours with a speech therapist, and the process of putting in the implant wipes out any hearing the child may have had. Some research also is showing that there is an increase in menegitis for kids with implants.

    Being deaf is not the end of the world and I encourage all parents whose children have a hearing loss that before major decisions are made they talk with people from the deaf community.

  3. Hello Gael:

    In my previous post, I forgot to mention that besides my grandfather, father and sister having hearing loss, I do too, which is why we were concernced as expectant parents about potential hearing loss in our children. Bye for now!

  4. Hello Gael:

    Thanks for another excellent blog which brought back memories of the births of our two daughters. Due to hearing loss on my side of the family (grandfather, father, sister), my wife and I were also concerned about the possibility of hearing loss. We participated in a genetic screening process and my eldest daughter was diagnosed with mild hearing loss that has worsened slightly over the years (she’s now 15), but she doesn’t need hearing aids yet. However, she recently used by FM system to watch TV (to find out what dad likes about it so much she said) and was quite amazed at how much of a difference it makes for her. So, like you, we’ve been prepared for the possibility of having to deal with hearing loss and possibly intervention if needed. To me, the message is clear – if parents suspect hearing loss in their children, at whatever age, they need to have it checked ASAP. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

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