Congenital Heart Defects

Congenital heart defects are abnormalities in the heart that are present when a baby is born. Heart defects can range from mild to severe.

When a person has a heart defect, we say they have congenital heart disease. A person has congenital heart disease for their entire life, even if it is repaired in childhood.

The specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, are the leading providers of pediatric heart care in Louisville and Southern Indiana. They have extensive skill and experience in treating congenital heart disease.

Our board-certified and fellowship-trained specialists can provide a precise diagnosis of your child’s congenital heart disease and develop a customized treatment plan for you and your child — for life.

Our adult congenital heart disease specialists provide advanced care as patients get older.

Not all congenital heart diseases need surgery. Our specialists have the experience to know when a condition will resolve itself and when it is more complex.

Sometimes our cardiothoracic surgeons need to perform lifesaving operations shortly after birth. Other times, the condition only needs to be monitored or can be treated with medications.

The Society of Thoracic Surgeons has rated Norton Children’s Heart Institute’s pediatric heart care among the best in the region. Norton Children’s has a network of outreach diagnostic and treatment services throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

Congenital heart defects happen because of incomplete or abnormal development of the baby’s heart during the very early weeks of pregnancy. Some defects are associated with genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome,  while most congenital heart defect causes are unknown. While these defects can’t be prevented, many treatments are available.

Our specialists are prepared to treat a full range of congenital heart defects and abnormalities, including:

When Do Congenital Heart Defects Occur?

By eight weeks, the four heart chambers are fully formed and any congenital heart defect will be established.

The heart starts developing at conception and starts beating about 22 days later. If congenital heart disease develops, it will be during the first eight weeks of gestation.

Heart growth happens in specific steps at specific times in a baby’s development. If a step is missed or happens out of sequence, defects can develop — a hole between chambers, misdirection of important arteries, faulty valves and other conditions.

The baby’s beating heart will be visible on ultrasound after about five weeks. A fetal echocardiogram can show a heart condition at about 16 to 18 weeks.

Congenital Heart Disease Symptoms

Because congenital defects often affect the heart’s ability to pump blood and deliver oxygen to the tissues of the body, they often produce telltale signs, such as:

  • A bluish color to the lips, tongue and/or nailbeds (cyanosis)
  • An increased breathing rate or difficulty breathing
  • Poor appetite or difficulty feeding
  • Failure to thrive (weight loss or failure to gain weight)
  • Abnormal heart murmur
  • Sweating, especially during feedings
  • A weaker pulse

If you notice any of these signs in your baby or child, call your doctor right away. If your doctor notices these signs, they may refer you to a pediatric cardiologist — a doctor who specializes in treating heart conditions.

How Are Congenital Heart Defects Diagnosed?

Some congenital heart defects cause serious symptoms right after birth. For those, a baby will go to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Norton Children’s Hospital or Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital for immediate evaluation. Other defects might not be diagnosed until the teen years — or even adulthood.

Screening Before Birth

A fetal echocardiogram (echo) is a specialized type of ultrasound that can diagnose heart conditions while you’re pregnant and as early as 16 to 18 weeks into the pregnancy. Norton Children’s Heart Institute offers fetal echo tests at locations around Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

Your obstetric (OB) physician may order a fetal echo when a possible heart abnormality is seen on a routine pregnancy ultrasound. Fetal echos also are done if another close family member has congenital heart disease or if the mother has a condition, such as diabetes, that might put the baby at increased risk for a heart condition.

Newborn Screening

At least 24 hours after birth, newborns in the U.S. receive a pulse oximeter screening to check for low oxygen levels that can be a sign of congenital heart disease. This is a simple, painless test in which a sensor is placed on the baby’s skin to estimate how much oxygen is in the baby’s blood.

If the test reveals an issue, treatment can start right away. The screening will find most serious heart defects, but some babies who test normal could still have a heart condition, such as coarctation of the aorta or other defects that don’t directly lower oxygen levels.

Congenital Heart Disease Treatment

Treatments can range widely, from medicines to surgery to a heart transplantation. More treatments than ever are available for congenital heart disease, and most treatments have a high success rate.

Congenital heart disease doesn’t mean a child can’t lead a healthy, active life. By working with the experienced health care team at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, you will get a treatment plan based on your child’s specific needs to grow and thrive.

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