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It can be very scary for a new parent to find out their infant has a heart defect. Most parents have no idea what this means or what to expect next. But believe it or not, more than 40,000 babies each year are born with heart defects. Hopefully this information will make this time of uncertainty a little easier to deal with.

What causes heart defects?

The heart’s development inside the womb is an amazing process. A normal heart has two sides, with a thick muscular wall called the septum dividing them. The heart is also divided horizontally, between the upper chambers, or atria, and the lower chambers, or ventricles. Finally, a number of large veins and arteries are connected to the heart. If any of these structures do not form properly before birth, the result is a heart defect.

How are they diagnosed? 

Sometimes your baby’s pediatrician will diagnose a heart defect by physical exam, if your baby has a heart murmur or weak pulses in the legs. At other times, a baby may show concerning signs, such as poor feeding, poor weight gain, fatigue, rapid breathing, or a blue tinge to the skin. Some babies will be diagnosed before birth if the defect is seen on an ultrasound.

What is the next step?

If your baby’s pediatrician suspects that your child has a heart defect, he or she will likely have a number of tests performed. These include a test to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood, an EKG, and an echocardiogram. If these tests come back abnormal, your baby will be sent to a cardiologist for further evaluation.

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