“That baby has a headphone! He is so high-tech with his bluetooth!”
My two-year-old is high-tech, but not because he wears a bluetooth. He has a cochlear implant. If you’re nodding your head in feigned understanding but really thinking, WTH is a cochlear implant?, no worries. Two years ago I would have been right there with you. Which is why comments about Little Dude’s “baby bluetooth” don’t bother me. At all. In fact, I love when people ask about his hearing technology. It opens the door for me to explain what it is and why it’s awesome. So in honor of Better Hearing and Speech Month, here’s what I would tell you about my son’s cochlear implant if you found your cart next to mine at H-E-B tomorrow:
What it Is
A cochlear implant is an incredible device that allows people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to have access to sound. It’s different from a hearing aid in a few ways, but one is that it requires the recipient to have a surgical procedure due to the device’s internal components.
Why He Needs it
Baby Boy was born with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss (translation: he has hearing loss in both ears due to part of his inner ear not working as it should). There’s actually a great Storybots episode about this on Netflix (season 2, episode 4) if you want an animated explanation to enjoy with your kiddos. In a nutshell, sounds typically stimulate hair-like cells in the cochlea and cause them to send signals to the brain via the auditory nerve. In my son’s case, those darn hair-like cells don’t function normally, don’t send signals to his sweet little brain, and as a result, he cannot hear. Even though he has hearing loss in both ears, he only needs a cochlear implant on the right side where the loss is at a profound level. His left ear still gets great benefit from a hearing aid.
How it Works
Buckle up—we are about to get technical! A cochlear implant has a few parts. On the outside, a cochlear implant recipient wears a sound processor, which looks similar to a hearing aid, over their ear. The processor is attached to a magnetic transmitter. This circular piece sits on the outside of the head, a few inches back from the ear. Underneath the skin is the implant itself. The implant also has a magnet which holds the outer transmitter in place. The implant is attached to a thin electrode (picture a high-tech-looking spaghetti noodle) that is inserted into the cochlea. The sound processor picks up sound and delivers it to the transmitter, which then sends it through the skin to the internal implant. The implant and electrode pass this information on to the brain. Think of it like a track and field relay race, where a “sound baton” is handed off from the processor to the transmitter to the implant to the electrode and, finally, to the brain.
Cochlear implants are a big decision.
While I was thrilled at the idea of my son being able to hear, I was still worried. There are a few different paths families can take when they find out their child has hearing loss. Information and opinions abound for all (e.g., ASL, total communication, listening and spoken language, etc.). It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. There was a lot of praying, researching, and discussing before we came to a final decision. We felt that following a listening and spoken language model was best for our family. Of course we still love and feel a connection to all individuals and families in the deaf community, regardless of what philosophy they embrace.
Cochlear implants are not a quick fix.
Now that my little guy has access to sound, you would think that all is well. Not quite. He has to learn what to do with that sound: how to make sense of it, imitate it, create it. He would be doing that at this age even if he had typical hearing, but he missed out on a lot of listening time. Babies start hearing their first sounds at about twenty weeks gestation. Mine didn’t get hearing aids until he was six months old and didn’t have his implant activated until he was thirteen months old. We do speech and auditory-verbal therapy every week, as well as tons of stuff at home to facilitate his listening and speaking. For example, the small microphone I’m always wearing is not connected to my iPhone. It’s a microphone that sends my voice directly into his processor. Background noise and distances of more than three feet make it difficult for those wearing hearing technology to understand speech. My mini mic ensures that he hears my voice and has access to speech sounds no matter what.
Cochlear implants are fun.
My son’s head is a human magnet. No joke. If you pop off the transmitter for a minute, you can slap a refrigerator magnet right on there. Also, there are sweet accessories available to make your cochlear implant even cooler than it already is—everything from sports teams to superheroes. And speaking of cool accessories, you can wear cochlear implants while swimming by using waterproof sleeves. Lastly, losing headphones will never be a problem for my son because it’s possible to stream devices directly to the cochlear implant: shows, phone calls, music, etc.
I’m beyond grateful.
My daughter’s last Chick-fil-A meal came with conversation cards. One asked, “What tiny object is most precious to you?” Immediately I thought of Little Man’s cochlear implant. My deaf kid can hear. He dances to music with his sister. He is part of family talks at the dinner table. He can listen to books at story time. When I take a step back to consider that this tiny device recreated one of his five senses, I am blown away.
Thanks for listening. The next time you see a kiddo with his or her “baby bluetooth,” now you’ll know exactly what to say.