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Fetal Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital Heart Disease in Babies: Fetal Diagnosis and Management

Congenital means present at birth. Congenital heart disease (CHD), also called “congenital heart defects,” means any problem with the way your baby’s heart formed in the womb. Some congenital heart diseases in babies can result in a hole in the heart, problems with the heart’s valves, or heart rhythm problems (called arrhythmia). These problems can affect how blood flows through the heart and to the rest of the body.

The Pediatric Heart Specialists (PHS) team provides compassionate, expert care to expectant parents and babies. We explain what’s going on and answer all your questions, taking all the time you need. As one of Texas’ most experienced pediatric heart programs, you can rely on us for the right diagnosis and treatment for your child.

How common is Congenital Heart Disease in babies?

Congenital heart defects are present in about one in 100 babies. CHDs are the most common birth defect. Many congenital heart diseases are mild. They may not even cause symptoms, and they may resolve over time without any treatment.

For some children, CHD can cause serious health problems. We treat all levels of congenital heart disease, including the one in four babies with CHD who need heart surgery within their first year of life.

What are signs and symptoms of fetal Congenital Heart Disease?

Sometimes doctors diagnose a problem with your unborn baby’s heart during pregnancy. Your health care provider may find it on a scan, such as your 20-week ultrasound. When your provider finds a problem, they refer you to us for further testing.

We use fetal echocardiography to help diagnose a possible heart condition before your baby is born. The test provides detailed information about your unborn baby’s heart and how it is working.

We know this time can be very stressful for your family. We spend the time you need to explain what is happening with your baby's heart and what care, treatments and outcomes you can expect.

What causes Congenital Heart Disease in babies?

Unfortunately, doctors usually don't know what causes congenital heart disease in a baby. The heart starts to develop soon after conception, and many heart defects occur in the first eight weeks of a pregnancy.

Risk factors for congenital heart disease in babies

Some types of congenital heart disease run in families. Other times, the condition is related to risk factors such as:

  • Alcohol consumption during pregnancy: Avoid alcohol during pregnancy and while trying to conceive (get pregnant).
  • Chemical exposures: Have someone else paint or use chemicals. If you must be around organic solvents, use a respirator, skin protection and adequate ventilation.
  • Family history of congenital heart disease: Genetic counseling can help you understand your baby’s risk.
  • Infection in the mother, including rubella (German measles) or influenza (flu), during the first few months of pregnancy: Getting scheduled vaccinations and taking health precautions can minimize your risk.
  • Mother with health conditions: Lupus, maternal PKU (phenylketonuria), or type 1 or type 2 diabetes raise your risk. Talk with your doctor about treating these conditions for a healthy pregnancy.
  • Obesity: If you can, reach a healthy weight before conception. Staying active and receiving prenatal care can keep your baby safer.
  • Premature birth: Some babies born early develop a hole in the heart or other incomplete heart formation. Doing your best to have a healthy pregnancy reduces the risk of premature birth.
  • Smoking during pregnancy: It’s best to quit smoking at least one month before conceiving.
  • Taking certain medications: Take only the prescription or over-the-counter medicines that your health care provider has approved.

Types of Congenital Heart Disease in babies

Congenital heart disease varies from very mild to severe, and some types need care soon after birth and throughout childhood. Our experienced doctors treat all types of congenital heart diseases in children.

Treatments for Fetal Congenital Heart Disease

We personalize your unborn baby’s treatment for congenital heart disease, as well as their care throughout their childhood. As part of our fetal heart care, we carefully assess your baby’s condition and monitor your baby throughout your pregnancy. Your care plan depends on the severity and type of CHD.

Thanks to our affiliation with Children’s HealthSM, your family has access to higher levels of heart care and surgery, including more specialists. This partnership makes it possible for us to diagnose and care for more babies and children with complex heart disease. When necessary, you have access to Children’s Health’s heart surgeons and pediatric cardiac intensive care unit (CICU).

Nonsurgical care for fetal Congenital Heart Disease

In some cases, even before your baby is born, we can use medicine to support their heart. Treating the mother can help a baby with poor heart function develop more appropriately and have a safe birth.

Medication therapy can also help babies and children with:

  • Arrhythmias
  • Heart failure
  • Post-surgical risk of blood clots, fluid buildup, swelling or arrhythmia

Fetal surgery for Congenital Heart Disease before birth

Most pediatric cardiologists don’t recommend surgery on a fetal heart during pregnancy. These surgeries pose high risks, and many congenital heart diseases affect the baby’s health only after the baby is born.

In the rare event that fetal surgery for CHD is required, we will help you get the care you need. We have close relationships with trusted colleagues at the few centers around the country that offer fetal heart surgery.

Surgery and minimally invasive procedures for Congenital Heart Disease after birth

After your baby is born, they may need a minimally invasive procedure or surgery to treat the heart condition. Our team and the surgeons at Children’s Health perform all types of procedures to treat congenital heart defects.

Even soon after birth, your baby may be able to receive minimally invasive treatment for congenital heart disease through cardiac catheterization. During cardiac catheterization, a surgeon threads a long tube, called a catheter, through your baby’s blood vessels to the heart. The doctor sends tiny tools through to perform tests or:

  • Close holes in the heart
  • Correct heart valves so your child’s heart can pump more effectively
  • Create openings or connections in the heart where they are missing
  • Improve blood flow in blood vessels

Many people with CHD need multiple surgeries over several years. Your child may have more procedures as they grow. Learn more about congenital heart diseases and treatment in children.