New parents are usually overwhelmed and exhilarated after meeting their
new baby for the first time. While those first couple of days in the hospital
can be a blur, parents should be aware that their babies will undergo
some important testing during that time.
“September is Newborn Screening Awareness Month,” says
Lisa Hoang, MD, a pediatrician with
St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Tustin. “The tests done during the first days of an infant’s
life can be crucial in detecting possible congenital medical conditions
that may not be immediately apparent. And if a problem is discovered,
or there is a high risk for a certain disease, an early start may be valuable
in determining care management and treatment options.”
Doctors screen for medical conditions with what’s called a heel-stick
test. The newborn’s heel is pricked and the resulting blood drops
are sent to a lab for analysis. This is usually done within the first
12-48 hours of a baby’s life; it is sometimes done later for premature
or sick infants.
“These screenings test for a wide variety of diseases; the specific
number and kind vary by state,” Dr. Hoang says. “They can
include cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, congenital hypothyroidism,
a host of metabolic disorders and many more.”
Usually if an abnormality is found during the screening, parents will be
alerted by the physician within a few days, and it requires further testing.
On the other hand, if the original tests come out normal, parents may
not be alerted and the results will be sent to the pediatrician for the
baby’s medical records. “It can’t hurt to follow up
with your pediatrician to make sure she received the test results and
that everything looked fine,” Dr. Hoang says.
Newborns are also screened for hearing impairment—about one to three
of every 1,000 babies is born with some type of hearing problem. “There
are a couple of ways this can be done,” Dr. Hoang says. “In
one process, otoacoustic emissions, a small probe measures sound waves
in the inner ear produced in response to a series of sounds played in
the baby’s ears. With automated auditory brainstem response, a baby
hears sounds through headphones and electrodes on the head measure the
response. Both of these tests can be done while a baby sleeps.”
If the screening indicates a potential problem, follow up testing is advised
before the baby turns 3 months old.
Finally, doctors also screen newborns for potential critical congenital
heart defects. This is done by measuring the blood’s oxygen levels
via sensors on the baby’s skin in a process called pulse oximetry.
A physical examination of the baby may also be conducted.
It’s crucial for parents to know that a red flag raised during the
screening process doesn’t automatically mean their baby has a certain
disease. “What newborn screening does, and does well, is let physicians
and parents know if there is a risk,” Dr. Hoang says. “They
can then act quickly to ascertain if the infant does have a disease through
more extensive follow-up testing. That early detection can make a world
of difference for the future of the baby’s health and development.”
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