Congenital Heart Disease: 6 Common Questions Answered

Did you know the most common birth defect is a heart defect? Heart defects can range from mild to life-threatening, and thanks to advances in medicine, there is hope for children with even the most complicated heart abnormalities. In honor of Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) Awareness Week, Le Bonheur Pediatric Cardiologist Alex Arevalo, MD, answers some common questions about heart defects.

How common are heart defects?
Congenital heart disease occurs in one out of 100 live births, or about 1 percent of children.

There are different types of heart conditions -- some resulting in abnormal valves (which allow blood to flow through the heart) and some causing extra connections or vessels. The good thing is that some heart conditions do not need surgery and may get better on their own.

What prenatal tests are available to determine if my child has a heart defect?
Around 18-22 weeks into your pregnancy your obstetrician usually perform an ultrasound to look at your baby's heart. If there is a major concern he can refer you to a pediatric cardiologist for a consultation.

How can a pulse oximetry test identify a heart defect?
Pulse oximetry (or pulse ox) uses a small device -- a monitor that they put on the baby’s finger or foot shortly after birth – to test the levels of oxygen saturation. If the baby’s oxygen saturation is less than 95 percent, many state laws require further testing of the baby’s heart to rule out any congenital heart defects. Learn more about pulse ox screening.

If my state doesn’t mandate a pulse ox screening at birth, can I ask for one?
Yes, definitely. Luckily most states are getting their act together and requiring hospitals to check the oxygen level on all newborns.

Does a normal pulse oximetry mean my child does not have congenital heart disease?
No. Pulse oximetry can usually catch "critical" heart conditions in babies, but there are some heart conditions that cannot be detected by pulse oximetry.

I have a newborn. What symptoms would likely present if she has a heart defect?
Not gaining weight appropriately or poor feeding could be a sign. Babies usually take 2-3 ounces of milk or formula every two to three hours in about 10-15 minutes. A sign of abnormal feeding would be taking 1-2 ounces and taking one hour to feed. A murmur can also be a sign of a heart condition, although most of the time it’s normal and nothing to worry about.

*At right, parents and babies get together during Le Bonheur's Congenital Heart Disease Playgroup.

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