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A baby looks at a mother making signs during a lesson to show Polish mothers how to communicate with their babies using sign language.

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

Speech and hearing experts are asking the federal government to establish a national program to test newborns for hearing problems, which often go undetected through the first years of life and can significantly impede learning and social development.

The Canadian Association of Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA) will ask the Commons finance committee on Tuesday to include money in the next federal budget for the Canadawide testing of babies.

Although some provinces, notably Ontario and New Brunswick, have been testing the hearing of newborns for several years, others have been slower to make the procedure part of the routine slate of examinations that follows a birth.

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CASLPA officials said on Monday that Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland still do not require every baby to be tested.

Gillian Barnes, president of CASLPA, is also the mother of a son, Callum, who was born deaf in one ear, a problem that was not discovered until he was four years old. Children with hearing in just one ear have difficulty differentiating one noise from another and filtering out background sounds.

"He was later in his talking. He was later in actually a lot of his development, even his walking," Ms. Barnes said.

As soon as Callum's doctors realized that one ear was not working properly, the boy was fitted with a hearing aid. Now 14, he has now caught up both socially and academically.

But "when he was three-and-a-half or four, he wouldn't be able to verbalize to tell me, 'Mom, I can't hear the teacher,' " at his child-care centre, Ms. Barnes said. "I wonder if there was something that I could have done to make that part of his life a little easier for him and what sort of struggles was he having."

The CASLPA says the brains of babies who have hearing problems or, worse yet, live in a world of silence, do not develop in the same way as those of children who hear properly. If the problem is diagnosed early, the communication, socialization, learning and behavioural issues that often result can be reduced or prevented.

Some deafness can be cured in infancy with relatively simple operations. In other cases, babies can be fitted with hearing aids and parents can be trained to deal with the impairment.

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The newborn hearing test, the association said, costs about $35, less than some of the other tests that are routinely performed. Its benefits are widely acknowledged, and 95 per cent of U.S. babies are tested.

The federal Conservative government has often argued, in matters related to health care, that health issues are the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories.

But Andrée Durieux-Smith, a professor of audiology at the University of Ottawa, said all children in Canada should have access to the same tests. "If there are no services in certain provinces, then some children are being denied."

And Megan Leslie, Health critic for the federal New Democrats, said even though health care is a provincial matter, Ottawa can offer dedicated funding and set national standards. In this case, she said, "If we can identify [health issues such as deafness]very early in somebody's life, then we can actually reverse higher costs or stop higher costs from coming later."

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