Congenital Heart Disease in Infants

Karen Frazier
baby checkup

As a new or expectant parent, you may worry about congenital heart disease in infants. Congenital is a word that means "existing at birth."

What Causes Congenital Heart Disease in Infants

Approximately one percent of live births are babies born with some type of a congenital heart disease or defect. In some cases, congenital heart disease is secondary to (or caused by) other congenital conditions such as Downs Syndrome.

In many cases, the cause of the congenital heart disease in infants isn't known; however, there are some known causes of congenital heart disease in infants, including:

  • Maternal use of street drugs during pregnancy.
  • Maternal viral infection during pregnancy - for instance, rubella.
  • Heredity may play a role in congenital heart disease.

Types of Congenital Heart Disease

There are a number of congenital defects that either obstruct blood flow to the heart or in the vessels near the heart - or cause the blood to flow through the heart abnormally.

The two most common forms of congenital heart disease are:

  • Sepal defects, which are holes in the wall between the right and left chambers of the heart.
  • Patent ductus arteriosus, which is an open blood vessel between the pulmonary artery and the aorta. This hole is supposed to close up after birth. When it doesn't, it causes excessive blood flow to the lungs.
  • Other congenital heart defects include missing arteries, misplaced blood vessels, blocked blood vessels and missing valves, just to name a few.

Symptoms of Infant Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart disease may have no symptoms. In severe cases, symptoms may include fatigue, rapid or irregular breathing, poor circulation and cyanosis (turning blue).

Diagnosing Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart disease is typically diagnosed by physical examination. It an be diagnosed in utero (during pregnancy) or shortly after birth. Doctors may notice a slight murmur of the heart or a blue tinge to the skin. Confirmation of the diagnosis is frequently done by chest x-ray.

Some congenital heart disease goes undiagnosed until later in childhood or even adulthood.

Treatment for Congenital Heart Disease

Some congenital conditions heal on their own, such as congenital heart lesions, as long as there is no other disease or dysfunction present. In other cases, the main treatment for infants with congenital heart disease is open heart surgery. Advances in surgical procedures in the past half of a century have made treatment of congenital heart conditions possible, and quite often the results are quite successful. If your infant has been diagnosed by your doctor with congenital heart disease, he or she will cover all of your surgical and treatment options with you, outlining both the benefits and the risks.

There has been a 24.1% drop in death rates of infants and children diagnosed with congenital heart disease since 1999 in large part due to these advances in treatment.

Caring for an Infant With Congenital Heart Disease

Having a baby with congenital heart disease can be frightening and stressful for a new parent. Many questions may arise about how to care for your child.

Holding Babies With Heart Disease

Babies with congenital heart disease need to be held and loved just like every other baby. They are not more outwardly fragile than any other infant.

Feeding Babies With Congenital Heart Disease

They may tire while feeding, which means that babies will need to be fed more often in order to assure adequate nutrition. A baby with congenital heart disease may also need more food than other babies, because the added stress on the baby's heart means that the baby has to work harder and therefore burns more calories.

Breastfeeding is best for all babies; however, in babies with congenital heart disease it may even be more important because breast milk confers a number of benefits that can help to protect your baby from infection. This protection may be even more important for babies with heart disease because infection can make heart problems worse.

If you are unable to breastfeed your baby, check with your doctor to see if your baby may require a special formula with extra nutrition to help your baby grow.

What to Expect

It is possible that an infant with congenital heart disease may grow more slowly than other babies. The other milestones are typically reached on a par with other babies. Once the heart problem has been fixed, your baby will likely grow and develop in a normal manner.

Taking Care of the Parents

Having a baby with heart disease can lead to stress and worry. Be sure to care for yourself as you care for your child. Find support by joining a support group. Your doctor may be able to help you find resources to cope with caring for a sick child.

Congenital Heart Disease in Infants