Newborn screening 101

Q What exactly is a newborn screening?

A Newborn screening in Minnesota consists of three simple tests: 

  • Blood spot screening, which checks for more than 50 rare, but treatable disorders;
  • Hearing screening, which checks for hearing loss;
  • Heart screening, which checks for critical congenital heart disease.

Q Why is it important?

A Newborn screening helps identify possible health problems that can’t be found by a physical exam or medical history. If your baby is found to have one of these conditions, interventions and treatments are available. For example, some children with a blood spot disorder are treated with a special diet or medications. Children with hearing loss can benefit from seeing an audiologist to determine communication options that best fit their families. Finally, children with heart defects can have surgery or other medical interventions before going home.

Q When does it happen?

A Ideally, newborn screening happens between 24 and 48 hours after a baby is born. 

Q Where does it happen?

A Newborn screening happens at the birth hospital or out-of-hospital birth site. Because of the equipment needed to perform the screening, your baby may be brought to a different room. You can request to go with your baby to watch as the tests are performed.

Q Do I need to ask for it?

A No, you don’t need to ask for a newborn screening. They are provided routinely as part of a normal standard of care. 

Q How is it done?

A Blood spot screening consists of a heel prick. A few drops of blood from your baby’s heel are collected on filter paper and sent to the Newborn Screening Program. Hearing screening uses a small device that plays soft sounds and measures your baby’s response to those sounds. Heart screening uses sensors placed on your baby’s hand and foot to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood.

Q There’s no history of these conditions in my family. Does my baby still need a screening?

A Yes, most of the children found to have one of the conditions screened for are born to families with no previous family history. 

Q How will I get the results?

A The person performing the hearing and heart screening will give you the results the same day. The blood spot screening takes a few days. If your baby has an abnormal (positive or borderline) result, Newborn Screening Program staff will contact your baby’s doctor as soon as possible. Your baby’s doctor will then contact you to discuss next steps. Some results don’t require medical attention, but are important for you to know about, so the Newborn Screening Program will mail them to you directly. 

Don’t assume that no news is good news: Ask your baby’s doctor about your baby’s screening results at the first well-child visit. If your baby’s doctor doesn’t have the results yet, he or she can call the Newborn Screening Program. 

Q If my baby has an abnormal result, does that mean my baby has that condition?

A Not necessarily. Newborn screening casts a wide net because we don’t want a child who has one of these conditions to be missed. Any abnormal screening result needs to be followed up with additional testing to determine if your baby has that specific condition.

Q How are screening costs covered?

A The cost of screening is typically included with birthing and nursery charges, which are usually covered by health insurance. If you’re planning an out-of-hospital birth, a newborn screening might not be covered by insurance. It’s important to talk with your out-of-hospital birth provider about screening costs.

Dr. Sheldon Berkowitz is a pediatrician in the General Pediatrics Clinic at Children’s Minnesota in Minneapolis. He’s been in practice for more than 30 years and is the president-elect of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.