Heart Problems in Babies
Heart Problems in Babies
Low birth weight and premature babies sometimes face serious health challenges – the sooner they are born, the higher the risks. Sometimes the organs and tissues don’t develop properly and this alters their ability to function and perform properly. Some conditions can be diagnosed by ultrasound and other tests before your baby is born, while others become apparent after birth. Heart problems in babies happen when the heart is forming very early in pregnancy and are present when the baby is born. Heart defects a baby is born with are termed congenital heart defects.
Patent Ductus Arteriosis (PDA)
The most common heart problem in babies is called Patent Ductus Arteriosis (PDA). This occurs when the blood vessel ductus arteriosis – which is open in the womb to bypass blood flow to the lungs – doesn’t close after birth. Typically, once the baby begins using his lungs to breathe the ductus arteriosis closes on its own. This doesn’t always happen for preemies, however, especially if baby has lung disease. If the blood vessel stays open, it delivers too much blood to the lungs and can lead to heart, lung, and digestive problems. To treat PDA, medication called indomethacin may be given to help close the vessel. If this is unsuccessful, it can be done surgically. PDA occurs in 70% of preemies born earlier than 28 weeks.
Other heart defects
The heart plays such an important role in overall body function and health that heart problems in babies are given special consideration. For heart problems in babies, a specialist called a pediatric cardiologist will monitor and treat your child. Some heart defects are very minor and resolve by themselves, while others may require corrective surgery and a lifetime of special care. While PDA is the most common, some other heart defects a premature baby may receive treatment for include:
- Bradycardia – Babies in the NICU are often treated for bradycardia which is a slow, weak heart rate. Medication or other breathing support equipment can help.
- Abnormalities of the heart valves – In babies born with heart valve defects, blood flow could be blocked or restricted. Some may have the blood re-routed by a shunt or graft until baby grows large enough to undergo corrective surgery.
- Septal defects – The wall which divides the upper and lower heart chambers is called the septum. If there is a septal defect at birth, this means there is a hole in the septum that alters the way the heart passes blood from one chamber to another. This hole often closes by itself or is surgically sewn.
- Coarctation of the aorta – When the aorta (the vessel which carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body) is too narrow, blood cannot pass freely through. This condition is called coarctation of the aorta, and surgery is performed to either remove the narrowed portion of aorta or to widen the narrowed bit by inflating a balloon.
- Tetralogy of Fallot – TOF is a complex structural defect of the heart that pumps blood low in oxygen throughout the body. Babies with TOF will have blue skin and shortness of breath. TOF can only be corrected with surgery and is considered a critical congenital heart defect.
- Transposition of the great arteries – When the two major arteries leaving the heart are reversed (transposed), surgery is performed to fix their positions.
Signs your baby might have a heart condition
While each heart condition has specific signs and symptoms, your baby might have a congenital heart condition if he experiences:
- An abnormal pulse and/or heart rate
- Gasping for breath
- Breathing that is too fast or slow
- Inadequate feeding
- Poor growth patterns
- Blue lips or skin
- Swollen body or face
- Sweating while feeding
- Heart murmur
You should seek medical help if your baby exhibits any of these signs. Your baby’s doctor will run tests that can determine the problem and how it can best be treated. If your newborn preemie baby has heart disease or defects, he will receive treatment in the NICU until he is stable. With some heart defects, treatment may be ongoing with frequent check-ups. Be sure to ask lots of questions about how your baby’s heart condition is to be treated and understand all the risks associated with a specific treatment.
Does your child have congenital heart disease? Share your story with us in the comments.