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Women's health

Pregnancy and deafness

Deafness is defined as a partial or total inability to perceive or understand sound, and currently affects an estimated one in five people in the UK (Action on Hearing Loss, 2019).

Deafness is defined within four categories:

  • mild
  • moderate
  • severe and
  • profound (WHO, 2019).

There are many types and causes of hearing loss and deafness (Action on Hearing Loss), including:

  • age-related hearing loss
  • sudden hearing loss
  • noise-induced hearing loss
  • genetic hearing loss and deafness
  • ototoxic drugs and hearing loss
  • acoustic neuroma.

There are approximately 11 million deaf people in the UK, and around 4.4 million of these are of childbearing age. It is estimated that there are 900,000 adults in England and Wales with severe or profound deafness with an estimated 24,000 people reporting using British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language (AoHL, 2019; Emond et al, 2014).

Tinnitus, defined as hearing noises not caused by an external source, may also affect ability to hear and onset in pregnancy is common. It affects one in three pregnant women versus one in eight to ten people in the general population, see: tinnitus and pregnancy.

It is generally accepted that terms like “hearing impaired”, although common in the medical literature, should be avoided with deaf women and their families, see: The difference between deaf and hard of hearing and What is the difference between a person who is “deaf,” “Deaf,” or “hard of hearing”?

Depending on the cause and onset of deafness, there are several treatments and aids deaf people may use. Treatments include blockage removal, for example, earwax. Aids include external hearing aids or implants: Bone anchored, Middle Ear, Cochlear or Auditory Brainstem.

Deaf and hard of hearing people communicate in several ways and the Equality Act 2010, supported by the Accessible Information Standards, state that a woman’s preferred communication method should be asked for, documented and provided. This may include being aware of how to support lip reading, use a T-loop, book a sign language interpreter or lip speaker, write in plain English, among other methods. 

General health in the deaf and hard-of-hearing population is poorer despite generally healthier lifestyles. This is predominantly due to lack of accessible health information and miscommunication with health professionals. Mental health issues, particularly those linked to isolation, affect one in two deaf and hard of hearing people which is double that in the general population. Domestic violence is also twice as likely among deaf people.

The best way to support a deaf family is to ask them about their needs and work to provide them. Deaf and hard of hearing people are already navigating the hearing world and as such, likely have formed strategies to support themselves.

Maternity care tips

  • Offer for deaf women to hold the Sonicaid to feel the fetal heartbeat.
  • Inform the reception staff if you are expecting a deaf or hard-of-hearing person so they may guide them to sit where you can be seen when you come out to call names.
  • Services for booking and changing appointments should have a text or online/email options.
  • Hospital policies range in time needed to book BSL interpreters - this can sometimes take three weeks.
  • Some pain relief options may make it difficult to lip read or watch online interpreters.
  • Guidance during pushing stages may need to be tactile (in prior agreement with the women). For example, partner to squeeze hand for push and release hand for stop pushing.
  • A dedicated person in theatre to repeat what is being said by staff who are wearing masks.

Podcast: Meghan Luton - Pregnancy and deafness

    You can download a transcript of Meghan's podcast here.

    Further resources

    Action on Hearing Loss. This charity supports hearing loss prevention and deaf awareness.

    British Deaf Association. Charity with a focus on equality for deaf people.

    BSL Zone. British Sign Language broadcasting site. Programmes and documentaries on deaf history and culture. 

    British Society for Mental Health and Deafness (BSMHD). Charity the deal specifically with MH issues in deaf community.

    DCAL - UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research. Provides online deaf awareness training specifically for healthcare (although no maternity specific one as yet).

    Deaf Parenting UK. Not updated in a while but some resources are still available.

    Disability, Pregnancy and Parenthood. Practical information and peer support for disabled parents.

    Emergency SMS (999). A text service that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can sign up to. 

    National Deaf Children’s Society. Charity supporting deaf children and their families. 

    NHS 111 BSL Service. NHS 111 now has a BSL call handling service 

    Royal Association for Deaf People. Resources and support for deaf people.

    SHOUT 85258: Mental Health Crisis Line. If you text “Shout” to 85258 they will call you. If you text “Deaf” they will respond via text rather than calling.

    SignHealth. This charity has produced multiple reports into the health and mental health of deaf people. Notably, they provide BSL talking therapies and DV support services. 

    Signature and the Institute of British Sign Language (iBSL). Two main providers of deaf awareness and BSL training. 

    Further reading and videos

    Jackson, M (2011) Deafness and antenatal care: Understanding issues with access. British Journal of Midwifery, 19(5):280-284.

    Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. BSL films. Three videos on pain relief with BSL interpreting developed by midwives and East Lancashire Deaf Society.

    Maternity and Midwifery Forum. Deaf Nest: Improving pregnancy & childbirth experience for deaf parents. A video presentation by the midwife founder of ‘Deafnest’. 

    Public Health England. Screening video with BSL interpreting. Updated screening animation for pregnancy now available with subtitles and BSL.

    Sign Health and Bristol University. Sick of it. This report looks at the health of deaf people in the UK.

    Page last updated - 06/12/2021