Protecting Babies Hearts

You have already counted each tiny finger and toe. A simple, painless test can make sure your baby’s heart is healthy, too.

In a new report, child health experts say early detection helps prevent illness and death in babies born with heart defects.

To check for heart defects, your baby’s doctor will perform a test called pulse oximetry. A sensor taped to your baby’s foot checks the level of oxygen in the blood. If there is a problem, treatment can include medications and surgery.

“Abnormal heart valves, holes in the heart and missing heart valves with small heart chambers are just a few of the heart defects that can occur while a fetus is growing,” says James Strainic, MD, a pediatric cardiologist in the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “Most birth defects block or misdirect blood flow within the heart or the large arteries of the body.”

However, “some heart defects will not be detected through pulse oximetry,” Dr. Strainic says. “If you have any concerns regarding your baby’s heart or health, we encourage you to contact your pediatrician.”

Some infants are born with such a mild heart defect that it may not be 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
  • Blacking out
  • Irregular blood pressure

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

  • Trouble feeding
  • Bluish skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Enlarged heart

Causes for the Defects

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

  • The baby is born with Down’s 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.

In many cases, the cause of a heart defect remains a mystery - and seeking treatment is critical. “Different types of defects require different kinds of medical attention,” says Dr. Strainic. “Your child’s doctor will recommend the best course of action.”

strainic-james James Strainic, MD
Pediatric Cardiologist
UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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