Congenital Heart Defects and What Causes Them

Posted On: January 8, 2020 By Andrei Rebarber, MD

Heart complications can take a serious toll on your health even when you’re an adult. Babies born with heart defects can face an uphill battle when it comes to remaining healthy throughout life, meaning it’s important to set your child up for success by preventing heart defects and ensuring they have the care they need. Here’s what to know about congenital heart defects and what you can do about them.

What are Congenital Heart Defects?

Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are heart conditions that are present at birth. They can be serious or mild, but nearly 1 in 100 babies are born with CHDs, making it the most common birth defect. CHDs that are serious are called critical congenital heart defects. Heart defects can affect many different areas of the heart, including the heart chambers, the septum (the wall that divides the two halves of the heart), the heart valves, and the nearby arteries and veins. In some cases, CHDs can affect your baby’s blood flow, causing it to slow down, flow to the wrong areas, flow in the wrong direction, be blocked, or be insufficient at carrying oxygen.

What Causes Congenital Heart Defects?

CHDs can develop early on in pregnancy, even before you know you’re pregnant. This means that choices like drinking or smoking can increase your baby’s chances of developing a heart defect. Additionally, you should speak with your maternal fetal medicine specialist about any medications you take (like isotretinoin, thalidomide, and medications for blood pressure, cholesterol, and depression), since these can also increase the risks.

Outside of environmental factors, certain conditions present in your baby can increase the chances of a heart defect. These most commonly include genetic or chromosomal conditions. Also, conditions that you may have been diagnosed with can cause CHDs in your baby. These include lupus, PKU, obesity, diabetes, and rubella.

What Can I Do About Congenital Heart Defects?

It’s important to monitor your baby’s heart health as soon as possible with standard anatomical scans performed at 20-22 weeks in routine situations. Sometimes, earlier scans performed at 12 weeks (Nuchal translucency scans) or “early” anatomical scans performed at 14-16 weeks in specialized centers can detect fetal heart abnormalities at even earlier times in the pregnancy. Tests like a fetal echocardiogram performed by maternal fetal medicine specialists or pediatric cardiologists can help diagnose complex heart defects and provides better counseling on infant outcomes. This can be performed at 18 to 24 weeks of pregnancy and can detect things like fetal heart valve defects as well as abnormalities of the aorta and pulmonary vessels. Proper diagnosis can help set the stage to discuss options for invasive fetal diagnostic testing like whether an amniocentesis is required. This can help guide your pregnancy care and set up a postpartum plan if your baby has a heart defect. After birth, your baby will have a newborn scan to determine the exact heart defect and treatment options. With the right care and expert team, your baby can still enjoy a healthy and active life with a CHD, so it’s important to take the right steps.

Schedule an Appointment

It can seem overwhelming to consider your baby’s options if they have a heart defect, so partnering with an expert maternal fetal medicine team is a great first step. To schedule an appointment and create the right care plan for your baby, we invite you to contact our New York City office by calling or filling out our online form.

Carnegie Imaging for Women blogs are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace certified professional care. Medical conditions vary and change frequently. Please ask your doctor any questions you may have regarding your condition to receive a proper diagnosis or risk analysis. Thank you!

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