Early action key to infant hearing loss


IDENTIFYING HEARING problems in babies a few months old allows them to be fitted with hearing aids and develop normal speech, but HSE inaction has meant children in Ireland being diagnosed late, a hearing charity has claimed.

Deaf Hear stresses the importance of early action and a national programme and believes that early intervention could save money down the line in the education system.

Audiology services are under-resourced and badly structured in the HSE, says Brendan Lennon of Deaf Hear. “But parents are telling us that at least if they know their child has a hearing loss they can do something about it. Not knowing leaves them powerless and angry.”

Approximately three in 1,000 babies are born with significant hearing loss and many more are born with milder forms of hearing loss. Ninety per cent of children with hearing loss are born to parents with no such difficulties.

Lennon describes the outcomes from early detection as “phenomenal”. He met one profoundly deaf child at a day out in Dublin Zoo organised by his charity. The child’s voice and pitch were perfect and he understood everything the child said to him.

“The only ways I knew he was deaf was he did look at me carefully, he was watching my face, and he was wearing a cochlear implant,” he says.

The child had no natural hearing, but had a head start because he was diagnosed at an early age in the US. His Irish parents have since come home.

A few fortunate parents have benefited from local screening efforts. Sarah Mahon’s daughter was born in Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar and was tested when two days old. After further tests, she was diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss at four months. Baby Maria was fitted with two hearing aids a short while later.

“Instantly when I put the hearing aids in she starts chatting in the morning and she is very vocal. She is yapping all the time and responds if you call her name,” says Mahon. Doctors say they were very lucky that the diagnosis was made so early.

Mahon was also told the staff in Castlebar had taken it upon themselves to provide the service. The Mahons only realised how fortunate they were when they attended a weekend away for newly diagnosed children and their parents organised by Deaf Hear.

“We expected to meet loads of families in the same boat as us, with young babies who were diagnosed early,” says Mahon.

Most parents had children diagnosed around three years and at every hurdle they had been told “there is nothing wrong with your child”, recalls Mahon. “I was shocked that Castlebar seemed to be one of the very few hospitals in the country that actually had the screening in place.

“For us it was just another test that they did when the baby was born. We didn’t ask for it, we never expected it, but if we hadn’t got it we mightn’t even know today that Maria had a problem.”

Prof John Bamford, an expert from the University of Manchester, says: “The earlier such hearing loss is identified and intervention begun the better it is for both the child and the family.”

He adds that the obvious time to do it is “as soon as possible after birth”. Most developed countries have the tests in place.


New mum Caitriona has experienced the downside of the lack of a screening programme. Her baby Clare was born healthy, but it took years for health authorities to discover she had a hearing problem. Caitriona explained what happened:

“Clare missed her nine-month developmental check because the nurse was on maternity leave; at 13 months the distraction hearing test didn’t work. When the lady walked behind me, Clare just followed her with her eyes. They said she was too clever and too old to do the hearing test. I was told there was no reason for concern, but Clare could have a follow-up check for older children in a couple of months. The same thing happened again. I thought she was fine and reacting to everything at home, but we had to wait months for the next test.

“The test was done in a room filled with pictures and Clare kept saying, ‘Look at the bird’ and ‘Look at Old MacDonald’. She couldn’t follow the instructions on the headphones, which asked her to put the bricks in the bucket when she heard a noise, because she was too young. It was ridiculous for a small child.

“Again they said there was no cause for concern but to come back in six months.

I then moved from the southeast to Laois.

I mentioned it one day to my GP because I was sick of people saying her speech was bad. He thought it was okay, but had her checked. They did a check but weren’t concerned and said they would call me back again in six months. Clare was then three.

“But within the next six months, everything was a red flag to me. Upstairs and downstairs became a problem. Claire would shout, ‘Oh Mammy, where are you?’ I’d shout back, ‘I’m here’, but she couldn’t hear me. She was getting checked in preschool for not answering friends. And then one day when she was in the back of the car, she said: ‘Mammy turn around, I can’t see your mouth’.

“When we went back for the next test, I said I’m not leaving here today until Clare is properly checked. I was told that day that Clare was severe to profoundly deaf in both ears – and an expert lip reader. She was then three years and 10 months.
“Since she was diagnosed, I would give 100 per cent marks to the HSE in Laois-Offaly. When we went on a recent awareness weekend with Deaf Hear, I discovered how lucky we were compared to other parts of the country with regards services such as speech therapy. I’ve since been told that Clare’s hearing will go completely in 10 to 15 years.”