App brings hearing screening home

By Dawn Goodlove

Early detection is key to treating babies with hearing loss, the most common birth defect in the world. However, not every mother around the globe has access to proper hearing screening for her newborn or infant.

Even among babies born in U.S. hospitals who undergo screening, which is the majority of newborns, those who fail should be rescreened. But nationally, in 45 percent of those cases, parents never return their babies for rescreening.

Now, using an iOS smartphone or tablet and a free app created by Eric Kraus, MD (’83 MS, ’83 R), a Greensboro, N.C., surgeon in otology and neurotology, parents can screen their baby’s hearing at home.

“The earlier that hearing loss is identified and treated, the better opportunity that a child has to develop speech and language and to achieve their genuine developmental potential,” Kraus says.

Dr. Kraus
Eric Kraus developed an app to screen a baby’s hearing at home.

The Sleeping Baby Hearing Test App, available free at the iTunes Store, uses a built-in, self-calibrating sound level meter that measures voice volume to help a mother “see” the loudness of her voice while speaking the Ling 6 Sound Test to her lightly sleeping baby. The app includes the Ling Sounds (“ah,” “oo,” “sh,” “sss,” “mmm,” “ee”), which the mother repeats at 60-70 decibels within five minutes of her baby falling asleep in a quiet room. Interestingly, the mother’s voice must be used for the screen rather than the father’s voice or another female speaker. Babies are really tuned-in to hearing their mother’s voices.

A normally hearing newborn, between the ages of 2 weeks and 6 months, will arouse and move around when the mother speaks. If the baby arouses, he/she probably has normal hearing in at least one ear. A hearing-impaired infant will not arouse. If an infant fails to arouse repeatedly, parents should seek further professional hearing testing for their baby.

If a baby is ultimately fit with hearing aids, the Sleeping Baby Hearing Test may be performed again at home with the baby wearing hearing aids. If the baby arouses, it is a good indication the aids are providing genuine benefit.

The original Sleeping Baby Hearing Test was developed by Bill House, an ear surgeon, who invented the first cochlear implant in the 1960s and was Kraus’ mentor. To promote the Sleeping Baby Hearing Test for home use, House intended to mail thousands of kits with instructions and complicated sound level meters to pediatricians in the 1990s, Kraus says. But physicians were either not interested or parents couldn’t properly operate the sound meters.

Kraus placed an update to the original screen on his website several years ago, but rarely did users have the required sound level meter at home. In a 2012 phone conversation with House, Kraus reported the disappointing response to the online version.

“I ended the call with Bill very frustrated, looked at my iPhone, and had an epiphany: What if we created the Sleeping Baby Hearing Test App and used the iPhone as the sound meter?” Kraus said.

With House’s blessing, Kraus spent eight months directing design of the app, which launched in May 2013—five months after House passed away at age 89. In its first year, the app recorded more than 1,200 downloads from around the world without any advertising or marketing.

“I wish I could call Bill up on his smartphone and say, ‘Bill, we figured it out. We finally took a good idea and applied it to the right technology,’” Kraus says. “It’s our hope and our goal that this app will help millions of families and children around the world.”