Opening a door to the world of sound
When five-month-old Mary West's hearing aids go in, her face lights up as she begins to clearly hear the world around her.
The Brightwater infant has minor to moderate hearing loss in both ears, which was picked up by a newborn hearing test offered at the hospital.
The Universal Newborn Hearing and Early Intervention Programme has been offered nationwide to all babies since 2010.
According to the Ministry of Health, up to 170 babies each year are born with significant hearing loss.
When Mary's mother, Jo West, accepted the free hearing test, she didn't expect anything out of the ordinary, particularly given that her other three children have no problems.
At Mary's first appointment, two small earpieces were placed in her ears. A series of sounds was played through them, and a machine recorded the ears' response.
When Mary failed the first test, two small cups were placed over her ears and a similar test was performed. She failed that, too.
Mrs West took her back for a second appointment in June, and when those tests also showed signs of a problem, they were booked in to see the audiologist.
"After the first test, I was a little nervous," Mrs West said. "After the second test, I was thinking something must be wrong."
She said she could stand behind Mary, clap loudly and get a response, so she was sure it couldn't be complete hearing loss.
Apart from an aunt on her father's side who had mild hearing loss, there was no family history, Mrs West said.
"Doctors said they can't explain what has happened - it could be heredity. But it's just one of those things that happens."
The ministry says that over half the babies born in New Zealand each year with hearing loss have no family history or risk factors.
After an appointment with the audiologist, Mary now has two tiny hearing aids, which she is meant to wear for as many hours she is awake as possible.
"When you put them in and look at her face, it lights up when you start talking to her. You can see it in her eyes," Mrs West said.
However, because she is growing quickly, the aids become too small and fall out. The family are waiting for her third lot of moulds to be returned.
If they had not done the newborn check, they might not have noticed anything wrong until Mary was about two years old, when they would be expecting her to start talking, Mrs West said.
Nelson Marlborough screening programme co-ordinator Wendy Hardwick said that before the programme began, the average age of detection of any hearing loss in New Zealand was four years.
It was important to pick up on it early, she said, because children's development of language and communication happened between birth and age three.
Mrs West said that because of the early detection and the hearing aids, Mary should have no trouble learning to speak.
"That was my husband's biggest fear - that she was not going to be able to speak properly, and that she might get teased or hassled at school. Kids can be really cruel."
Mary was already trying to replicate noises, which was a good sign and meant she was taking in sounds, Mrs West said.
She said she would recommend that every parent with a new baby should get the hearing test.
"It doesn't cost anything, and you can't put a price on your child's health, on their development. And everyone [at the hospital] is really lovely."
Mrs Hardwick said only 86 parents had declined the screening in the past two years. Some refused because they did not like the idea of things being put in their babies' ears, while others declined all forms of intervention. They were often the same parents who declined immunisation and the heel prick test.
Nelson and Marlborough, from April 2010 to September 2012: Babies offered hearing screening: 3961 (92 per cent of all babies born in the NMDHB area) Babies who completed screening: 3661 Parents/caregivers who declined screening: 86 Babies targeted for follow-up with Nelson Audiology due to risk factors: 242 Babies referred to Nelson Audiology due to a family history of hearing loss: 50 Babies receiving hearing aids/cochlear implants: 2 Babies requiring further monitoring of hearing through Nelson Audiology: 28
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