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A Healthy Start: Newborn Screenings

A Healthy Start: Newborn Screenings

A brief primer on newborn health screenings that benefit babies—and offer parents peace of mind.

A day or two after your baby is born at Winchester Medical Center (WMC), he or she will receive essential health screenings to evaluate for hearing loss; heart defects; and rare but serious disorders that, if unrecognized, can lead to physical and intellectual disabilities.

Photo of Dr. RobertsonThe tests are brief and simple—five drops of blood drawn from your newborn’s heel, a painless hearing check, a noninvasive blood oxygen test. But the results can be life-changing or even lifesaving, says Jason Robertson, MD, chair of pediatrics at WMC. “We screen for medical conditions that may not run in a family and may not be obvious right away. Babies with them often look healthy at birth,” he says. “But they can be affected very early in life. When we know a newborn is at risk, we can take the right steps immediately to keep them healthy as they grow.”

The state-mandated newborn screenings provided at WMC include checks for metabolic, genetic and hormonal conditions that can quickly lead to developmental problems, serious health issues or be life-threatening.

Here’s what parents need to know:

Blood tests: A few drops of your baby’s blood are sent from WMC to a state lab for quick analysis. Thirty-
one tests are performed, checking for well-known conditions such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia as well as rarer conditions such as phenylketonuria (PKU), which allows a protein component to build up to dangerous levels. In 2019, two new genetic screenings were added to the state’s list: Pompe disease, a cause of early infant heart defects and muscle weakness, and MPS-1, which can damage organs.

Hearing check: Using a device placed gently on a baby’s head during sleep or at a quiet time, a healthcare provider tests a newborn’s hearing painlessly. “This is an important test because the early detection of hearing loss can help improve the development of the infant,” Dr. Robertson says.

Critical congenital heart disease test: Blood oxygen levels are measured noninvasively, in one of the baby’s hands and also in one foot. If levels are lower than optimal, the test will be repeated. If needed, a baby may receive advanced heart checks such as an echocardiogram.

Other Items to Know: 

  • Blood is typically drawn 24 to 48 hours after birth. Results are usually available within two weeks; you’ll be contacted right away if the tests find a potential problem. Otherwise, ask about the results at a wellness visit with your baby’s pediatrician. “Sometimes the test has to be repeated if a result is outside the normal range or if the lab sees a problem with the sample,” Dr. Robertson says. “Don’t panic, but be sure to follow your pediatrician’s advice and have a new sample drawn as quickly as possible.”
  • The test will be repeated in the hospital if a hearing problem is suspected. If needed, you will be referred to an otolaryngologist or pediatric audiologist.
  • A range of dangerous congenital heart defects can be found even before symptoms develop—and before a baby leaves the hospital.

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