About hearing tests

Learn about the different types of hearing tests you might have with a hearing specialist.

When in doubt, get it tested

Several methods can be used to test hearing, depending on a child's age, development, and health status.

Behavioral tests involve careful observation of a child's behavioral response to sounds like calibrated speech and pure tones.

Pure tones are the distinct pitches (frequencies) of sounds. Sometimes other calibrated signals are used to obtain frequency information.

The behavioral response might be an infant's eye movements, a head-turn by a toddler, placement of a game piece by a preschooler, or a hand-raise by a gradeschooler. Speech responses may involve picture identification of a word or repeating words at soft or comfortable levels. Very young children are capable of a number of behavioral tests

Physiologic Tests

Physiologic tests are not hearing tests but are measures that can partially estimate hearing function. They're used for children who can't be tested behaviorally (due to young age, developmental delay, or other medical conditions) and at any age to find which function of the auditory system is at fault.

Auditory brainstem response (ABR) test

For this test, tiny earphones are placed in the ear canals and small electrodes (which look like small stickers) are placed behind the ears and on the forehead.

Usually, click-type sounds are introduced through the earphones, and the electrodes measure the hearing nerve's response to the sounds. A computer averages these responses and displays waveforms.

An infant may be sleeping naturally or may have to be sedated for this test. Older cooperative children may be tested in a silent environment while they're visually occupied.

Because there are characteristic waveforms for normal hearing in portions of the speech range, a normal ABR can predict fairly well that a baby's inner ear and lower part of the auditory system (brainstem) is functioning normally in that part of the range. An abnormal ABR may be due to hearing loss, but it may also be due to some medical problems or measurement difficulties.

Auditory steady state response (ASSR) test

An infant is typically sleeping or sedated for the ASSR. This is a new test that currently must be done in conjunction with the ABR to assess hearing.

Sound is transmitted through the ear canals, and a computer picks up the brain's response to the sound and automatically establishes the hearing level. This test is still under development and should not be used alone but in addition to an ABR.

Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test1

This brief test is performed with a sleeping infant or an older child who may be able to sit quietly. A tiny probe is placed in the ear canal, then many pulse-type sounds are introduced and an "echo" response from the outer hair cells in the inner ear is recorded. These recordings are averaged by a computer.

A normal recording is associated with healthy outer hair cell function. In some cases, despite a healthy outer hair cell function, a hearing loss may be present if it's due to problems in other parts of the hearing pathways.

ABR or OAE tests are used at hospitals to screen newborns. If a baby fails a screening, the test is usually repeated. If the screening is failed again, the baby is referred for full hearing evaluation.


Tympanometry is not a hearing test but a procedure that can show how well the eardrum moves when a soft sound and air pressure are introduced in the ear canal. It's helpful in identifying middle ear problems, such as fluid collecting behind the eardrum.

A tympanogram is a graphic representation of tympanometry. A "flat" line on a tympanogram may indicate that the eardrum is not mobile, while a "peaked" pattern often indicates normal function. A visual ear examination should be performed with tympanometry.


The information on this website is for educational purposes, and is not intended to replace medical advice. Please consult a hearing healthcare professional to diagnose or treat a hearing or health problem.

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