This pandemic has impacted everyone in numerous ways – that goes without saying. We’re all trying to navigate the closures and regulations that have been put in place for our safety. But in the speech and hearing domain, we want to talk about how one particular group is missing out on crucial services.
The Infant Hearing Program (IHP) in Ontario provides screening to all babies in order to identify those with permanent hearing loss, as well as those who might be at risk for it. The process involves playing soft sounds in your baby’s ear and measuring the brain’s automatic response and a blood spot test. The blood spot can be used to identify genetic factors that could cause hearing loss.
With the government limiting what services can open during the pandemic, the IHP has only been conducting the blood spot tests, meaning that parents are being told to wait for their babies’ hearing tests. The problem? Screening needs to take place before a baby reaches 8 weeks old. After this point, the IHP no longer conducts hearing tests, which is detrimental for the 2 out of 1000 babies born with hearing loss; this puts these children at risk for speech and language delays.
Some facilities are testing high-risk babies, but the majority of parents are left wondering when the regular screenings will resume, since no official timeline has been released. Plus, once hearing tests resume, many infants will have already aged out of the 8 week age limit, and those who haven’t will be stuck on a long wait list.
Parents whose babies have missed the window for screenings are being told to monitor their infants’ hearing, speech and language skills, however this is nearly impossible to do without proper training and equipment while they’re so young. If parents somehow manage to detect abnormalities in their babies, getting a hearing test from an audiologist can have long wait times due to COVID. Getting faster testing can cost a fee, which isn’t ideal for low-income families or parents dealing with financial stress during the pandemic.
The bottom line is that the IHP exists to help parents become aware of their babies’ hearing loss to better prepare them for language development. We don’t know how many families are currently missing this crucial information and how this will affect them in the future. The government needs to release a timeline for when we can expect the IHP to resume screenings, because parents cannot navigate a child’s potential hearing loss alone.
For concerned families, please follow up with your family physician for a referral to an audiologist when possible. Continue to play and interact with your infant as this is the best way to encourage speech and language development. If you have concerns about your child not responding to sound, contact your family physician or Speech Language Pathologist. And remember, most hearing tests come back normal. Your infant is likely okay, we are just looking out for those 2 out of 1000.
EDIT: Ontario has resumed the screenings and is investing $3.8 million to hire more audiologists and increase the amount of referrals for hearing checks. The ministry says that this investment will also allow families of infants who have aged out of eligibility for the screenings to access other audiological assessments if there are any risks or concerns for them.
Taekema, D. (2020, July 31). Doctor says thousands of babies have missed crucial hearing screenings during pandemic. CBC. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/infant-hearing-program-covid-1.5667327
Infant Hearing Screening. (2020). ErinoakKids. Retrieved August 01, 2020, from https://www.erinoakkids.ca/Services/Services/Infant-Hearing-Screening.aspx.