Understanding Congenital Heart Defects


A congenital heart defect (CHD) is a structural problem with the heart that is present at birth. Such defects result when a mishap occurs during heart development soon after conception – often before the mother is aware that she is pregnant.

To better understand congenital heart defects, it’s helpful to remember how the heart is meant to function. A normal heart has valves, arteries and chambers that circulate blood in a recurring pattern. When all the chambers and valves work correctly, blood is pumped through the heart to the lungs foroxygen, back to the heart and then throughout the body to deliver that oxygen. When valves, chambers, arteries or veins are malformed, this circulation pattern can be impaired.

Though most heart problems in children are congenital, not all fall into this category. There are three general categories of possible childhood heart problems: structural defects, acquired damage and heart rhythm disturbances. These defects are usually, but not always, diagnosed early in life. Children also can be born with or develop heart rate problems such as slow, fast or irregular heartbeats, known as “arrhythmias.”

Most of the time, the cause of CHDs isn’t known. Although the reason defects occur is presumed to be genetic, only a few genes have been discovered that have been linked to heart defects. Very rarely, the ingestion of some drugs and the occurrence of some infections during pregnancy can cause CHDs.

Anyone can have a child with a congenital heart defect. Out of 1,000 births, at least eight babies will have some form of congenital heart disorder, most of which are mild. If you or other family members have already had a baby with a heart defect, your risk of having a baby with a heart defect may be higher.

Severe heart disorders generally become evident during the first few months after birth. Some babies have very low blood pressure shortly after birth while other defects cause breathing difficulties, feeding problems or poor weight gain. Some babies

may even appear to have blue-tinged skin, nails or lips. Most often, minor defects are diagnosed during a routine medical checkup.

The good news is virtually all children with simple defects survive into adulthood. Although exercise capacity may be limited, most people with CHDs lead normal or nearly normal lives. Limitations are common with certain defects. Some children with CHDs have developmental delays or other learning difficulties.

Successful CHD treatment requires highly specialized care. Treatment for severe defects can require extensive financial resources, including the costs associated with hospitalization. And children with developmental delays also require additional resources in their communities and schools to achieve their full potential.

A serious congenital heart defect can also put an enormous emotional and financial strain on young families at a vulnerable time. Patient and family education is an important part of successful coping. The American Heart Association’s Support Network is a great place to start. The network is where you can share concerns and gain insights within a community of care.