A Head Start on Hearing Loss: Baystate's Newborn Hearing Screening Program

Twenty years ago, parents often did not know if their child had a mild or moderate hearing loss until they were two or three-years-old. Today Baystate’s Newborn Screening Program can detect even the mildest hearing loss – and provides parents with a follow-up plan – before their newborn leaves the hospital.

“Those first years are so important developmentally,” says Barbara Morris, AuD, PASC, who coordinates the Newborn Hearing Screening Programs at Baystate Medical Center and Baystate Franklin Medical Center. “Babies begin to hear in utero and are already picking up familiar sounds and even dialect patterns. When they have any hearing loss, they are missing out on crucial speech, language, and learning concepts.”

All babies born in Massachusetts hospitals have their hearing screened before going home. Baystate Health hospitals have screened thousands of babies for hearing loss since the program began in the late 1990s. More than 185 newborns at Baystate Medical Center and Baystate Franklin Medical Center have been identified with hearing loss.

How Newborn Hearing Screening Works

Surgical technologists, phlebotomists, patient care technicians and nurses perform the screening while a baby is sleeping using an automated screening device called the “ALGO.” The screener places small stick-on electrodes on the baby’s forehead, nape of the neck, and cheek, and small stick-on headphones on each ear. The ALGO delivers soft clicking sounds and the computer measures the baby’s brainstem response to the sound.

Babies either pass or receive a referral to follow-up as an outpatient in a few weeks. In many cases, babies go on to pass the re-screening. Those who don’t are referred for diagnostic testing through Baystate's audiology and hearing services or other sites. 

If a hearing loss is confirmed, audiologists work as a team with the baby’s family and begin on the path to receive hearing aids or other support, often by the time the child is just a few months old.

Parental Follow-Through is Key

“It’s hard to tell parents their baby has a hearing loss, but we can also tell them there’s something we can do about it,” says Morris, who has been in the audiology field for over 35 years and first started at Baystate Franklin in 1979.

Parental follow-through, Morris emphasizes, is key to a patient’s success. “Children who are identified with hearing loss at birth, show up for all their appointments, wear their hearing aids or cochlear implants consistently, get good early intervention, and receive needed support services in school will do just as well as their normal hearing peers,” she says. 

Nationally, the follow-up rate for babies leaving the hospital with a “refer” is less than 50%. Morris says, “We are very proud that 100% of our parents at Baystate Medical Center and Baystate Franklin follow up.” 

She recalls a boy identified at birth at Baystate Franklin with moderate hearing loss who is now 17 years old. “He’s one of those kids we wouldn’t have found until he was two. Now he’s an honor student about to graduate high school, and is doing great.”