When Your Little One Has a Heart Defect

Narrowing of heart valves. Holes in the heart. Missing heart valves. These are just a few of the heart defects that can happen while a fetus is growing. Most birth defects block or misdirect blood flow to and from the heart.

Some infants are born with such a mild defect that it isn’t detected until later in childhood. Some of the signs parents and doctors may notice in a child include:

  • Chest pain

  • Trouble breathing when playing

  • Fatigue

  • Fainting

  • Irregular blood pressure.

Infants with a severe defect have more noticeable symptoms when they’re born, such as:

  • Trouble feeding

  • Bluish skin

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Enlarged heart

  • Slow weight gain.

Causes for the Defects

Congenital heart defects can result from a number of factors. The risk rises if:

  • The baby is born with Down syndrome or other genetic disorders.

  • The mother has diabetes or a family history of congenital heart disease.

  • The mother contracts a virus, such as German measles, early in her pregnancy.

  • The expectant mother is exposed to alcohol, certain medications, or illegal drugs.

But most of the time, the cause of these heart defects remains a mystery.

Special Care for Infants and Children

Different kinds of defects require different kinds of medical attention. A child’s doctor will recommend the best course of action.

Because their hearts are working harder, infants with heart defects tend to burn more calories than those without a heart problem. It’s important to work with a doctor to make sure these infants are getting enough food. Parents may need to add more feedings throughout the day instead of adding more food to each feeding. This is because these infants get tired more easily.

Infants and children with heart defects may also have weaker immune systems. That’s why it’s important that these children get all their vaccinations.

In addition, children—as well as adults—with heart defects are at risk for getting a heart infection called endocarditis. To help prevent this, doctors may prescribe antibiotics before certain kinds of surgery and dental work.

Some minor heart defects are OK if left untreated and may even disappear on their own. But others are likely to get worse without medication, surgery, and lifelong treatment. Some defects need to be surgically repaired as soon as the baby is born. Other problems can wait until the child is older.

Many children who are diagnosed with mild congenital heart defects can enjoy physical activities, including sports such as tennis, baseball, and cycling. But others may have to limit their participation in athletics and gym classes.

Babies with congenital heart disease may grow more slowly during infancy and childhood. Still, these babies will probably sit up, walk, and talk. Some may show mild to moderate cognitive dysfunction. If a child gets the right treatment for the type of defect, he or she has a good chance of growing up strong and healthy.

Online Medical Reviewer: Florence Desrosiers, MD

Date Last Reviewed: 3/26/2010

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