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CHD - The Most Common Birth Defect in Babies

Congenital heart defects (CHD) are the most common birth defects. CHD affects 8 out of every 1,000 newborns. Each year, nearly 40,000 babies in the United States are born with congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects are also responsible for more deaths in the first year of life than any other birth defect.

A baby two days after open heart surgery

A baby two days after open heart surgery

What are Congenital Heart Defects?

Congenital Heart Defects are when babies are born with something wrong with their hearts. When some part of the heart doesn't develop normally, the flow of blood is changed through the heart. Some CHDs, like mild pulmonary valve stenosis (narrowing of the pulmonary valve) are simple defects and usually do not require treatment. The only symptom may be a heart murmur.

Other defects, however, can be more complex, such as tetralogy of fallot, which is the most common complex CHD. Tetralogy of fallot (TOF) consists of four different types of defects which prevents an adequate amount of blood from reaching the lungs, resulting in oxygen-poor blood flow to the body. In the case of this type of defect, open heart surgery is needed either at birth or later in infancy. Symptoms of TOF usually include cyanosis or blueness of the skin and/or mouth and fingernails.

Whether mild or complex, there are 35 known types of defects. Heart defects may involve missing, unconnected or misplaced arteries; underdevloped or missing valves, and narrowed or blocked blood vessels.

Causes of CHD

To date, there is no known cause of CHD. Researches have speculated that heart defects are caused by a genetic abnormality or when the developing fetus is exposed to infections, toxic substances or drugs. Other factors may include:

  • Hereditary - a parent with a congenital heart defect may be more likely to have a child with CHD.
  • Genetic Disorders - Children with genetic disorders are more likely to have CHD. Half of all Down Syndrome babies have heart conditions.
  • Smoking during pregnancy - smoking has been linked to several congenital heart defects
  • Babies born prematurely have a higher chance of having a congenital heart defect.
  • Babies born to women who have chronic conditions such as diabetes have a higher chance of having a congenital heart defect.

Symptoms of CHD

If a baby has a mild defect, there may be no symptoms at all. There may be a heart murmur which can be heard with a stethoscope but sometimes even healthy babies and children have heart murmurs and some of them even grow out of their murmur.

Some symptoms of CHD in babies and children include:

  • Rapid or difficulty breathing
  • Cyanosis
  • Tires easily
  • Poor circulation
  • Sweating
  • Poor weight gain
  • Sudden weight gain or puffiness or swelling of the skin

There are some types of heart defects that cause the heart to work harder than it should. If the heart continues to work too hard it could result in heart failure. This is also known as Congestive Heart Failure or CHF.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Fatigue with physical activity
  • Shortness of breath
  • A buildup of blood and fluid in the lungs
  • A buildup of fluid in the feet, ankles, and legs
Heart surgeons performing an operation.

Heart surgeons performing an operation.

Treatments for CHD

Treatments for CHD vary depending on the severity of the heart defect and also the general health of the heart patient. As discussed earlier, mild defects might not require any treatment. While this is true, it is important to be seen by a pediatric cardiologist as he or she deems necessary. Some defects can get worse over time so it is always best to take extra caution.


Sometimes medication is required. Some examples of medicines used to treat CHD include:

  • Antiarrhythmics - controls irregular heartbeats
  • Cardiac glycosides - increases strength of heartbeats
  • Vasodilators - enlarges blood vessels
  • Diuretics - reduces extra fluid (usually used in cases of heart failure)
  • Prostaglandins and prostaglandin inhibitors - improves blood flow to the lungs or body

Cardiac Catheterization

Some who have CHD need to undergo a cardiac catheterization. This is done in order to find out the details of the heart defect or to sometimes to repair it. With cardiac catherization, a catheter is threaded through a blood vessel, usually in the groin and into the heart. This procedure allows the doctor see how blood is flowing through the heart and heart arteries.

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Sometimes treatment includes surgery. The type of surgery depends on the type of heart defect. There are many different kinds of surgeries to treat several different heart defects. If the defect is life-threatening, surgery might be done right away in a newborn. For other defects, surgery is usually done within the first two years of the child's life. Sometimes a child has two, three or more surgeries within the first years of the child's life.

There are cases where all three types of treatment - medicine, catherization and surgery - may be required. Also, it is important to know that just because a child has had corrective surgery does not mean they are cured. A congenital heart defect is something the child is going to receive ongoing care for, or at least be seen by a pediatric or a congenital adult cardiologist on a regular basis.

The night before open heart surgery.

The night before open heart surgery.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees. Ezekiel 36:26-27a

CHD and Me

I was born with a very complex congenital heart defect called Double Outlet Right Ventricle (DORV). As a baby, my mom noticed I tired easily and had cyanosis in my lips and fingernails. I had my first heart surgery called a Waterston shunt at six months of age. My parents took me by car from western North Dakota all the way to Minneapolis for the surgery. At the age of four, I had my second surgery called the BT shunt. We traveled by train to Minneapolis for that one and returned home just in time for Christmas. I had my Fontan when I was ten years old. Following surgery, I was excited to finally have pink fingernails.

The best way to describe my heart condition is that there are two main arteries attached to the ventricles. There is the pulmonary artery which carries oxygen-poor blood to the lungs and there is the aorta which carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the body. In a normal heart, the pulmonary artery rises from the right ventricle and the aorta rises from the left ventricle. In my heart, both the pulmonary artery and the aorta were attached to my right ventricle which caused my left ventricle to be non-functioning. I also had pulmonary stenosis, a ventral septal defect and leaky mitral valve.

I had a hard time being a kid with a heart defect. I couldn't do a lot of the normal physical activities that my siblings and other kids in my class were doing. I wasn't supposed to run or do anything that would increase my heart rate. When I did overextend myself, I came down with really bad headaches, sometimes migraines. I had scars on each side of my body and after my third surgery I had a scar down the middle of my chest. After my Fontan I actually felt 'normal' and healthy and could do more. It seemed I had been cured, until my bout with congestive heart failure at the age of 19 while a sophomore in college. You can read more about that ordeal in my Hub, Adults Living with Congenital Heart Defects.


Cornelius Wahome Geita from Kenya on May 28, 2014:

I have always had this thought that smoking and drinking is bad for the unborn. Great information.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on June 25, 2011:

RTalloni - thanks so much for your comment and for voting up - truly appreciated.

RTalloni on June 25, 2011:

Thanks so much for posting this good overview.

Voted up and useful.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on April 23, 2011:

france1982 - thank you so much for your comment. Through writing articles like this, it is my desire for people to learn more about congenital heart defects and that there can be much done today in this area - and to give parents of these babies hope. The child you mentioned sounds like he has hypoplastic left heart syndrome and I am glad to hear he is doing well.

france1982 from Planet Earth on April 22, 2011:

I have read an article about seven years child who has “only” half a heart. He's name is Sammy. He still alive and her mother once said that Sammy had a normal life. I think this hub is very useful, especially for parent who are going to have baby like Sammy's parent was...

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on March 27, 2011:

Manish - I'm so sorry to hear what your friend is going through. I will keep this precious baby in my thoughts and prayers. It is scary when a baby so small has to go through surgery. If you're able, I would love to hear how the surgery went.

Manish on March 27, 2011:

Thanks for sharing this Cary. You are really a hope for those whose babies are born with heart anomaly . I have a friend and his child has some heart problems when he was born 2 days back and doctors are saying for a heart surgery at the age of 3 days. We are really scared how it will go. Will appreciate if you can share something here.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on January 08, 2011:

fucsia - thanks for much for your comment - glad you found it informative.

fucsia on January 08, 2011:

Very informative Hub... Thanks for sharing

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 03, 2010:

Amy Block-Ferry - thank you so much for sharing. It is amazing to me that your daughter was able to receive a hemi-fontan at the age of 6 mos. Hopefully this means her childhood will be without a lot of restrictions. I had to wait 10 years for my fontan! I'm so glad you were able to find comfort in my story. There is lots of hope as technology continues to get better and better and there is more research in the area of pediatric cardiology.

Amy Block-Ferry on October 01, 2010:

Last year I gave birth to my second daughter who was born with D.O.R.V. taussig-bing anomoly. My husband and I were devastated fortunately we have an excellent pediatric cardiologist and surgen. My daughter Lila had her first open heart at 6 mos. a hemi-fontan. we celebrated her first birthday in July. I know we have a bumpy road to follow for the rest of our lives but I have hope and I found comfort in your story. Thank you.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on September 24, 2010:

Hi Angela - I received your e-mail as well. So glad to meet you! So glad your son is doing well despite what he went through during surgery. It is good to meet others with CHD as I have not met a lot of them, which is a little strange considering its the #1 birth defect.

I will be praying for you and your son that you both continue to do well!

angela877 on September 23, 2010:

Dear Cari, I was born with tetraology of fallot, I am now 42 years young, and have only had 2 open heart surgeries! I have been very fortunat and very blessed!!I also have a son born with tof as well. He is 22 years old now and doing very well also!! He however has had one more open heart then I did, but that was because when he had his second surgery the surgeon made a nic in his aortic valve! There was nothing we could do about it though because they made you sign a release form and all that. He is not seeing that surgeon again though and the new doctors that are seeing him say that he is doing well for now, so we just keep praying and hoping that all will be fine with him. reading your blog touched my heart and i had to respond to let you know you are not alone!! Angela.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on August 19, 2010:

I am aware of that condition. I think it is one of the more complex ones but even so, it is amazing how far they have come in the area of pediatric cardiology. Thanks for responding back!

katie54321 from Pennsylvania on August 18, 2010:

My son has (and I hope I write this correctly) an anatomically corrected transposition of the great vessels of the heart, along with what is described as a left formed heart. Essentially his heart is formed backwards. Right now it is functioning well but he does have some leakade in the mitral valve and the tricuspid valve. The cardiologist has him on an ACE inhibitor to reduce volume in the heart.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on August 18, 2010:

katie - I would be curious to know what kind of defect he has. There is so much they can do now days - it's really amazing! My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your son.

katie54321 from Pennsylvania on August 18, 2010:

Cari Jean, thank you for sharing. My youngest son has a congential heart defect and I fear for him some days. His defect is not the same as yours, but it gives me hope to see you as an adult and parent yourself thriving.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on July 08, 2010:

hiwotie - I am so sorry to hear about your situation. Have you tried searching the Internet for a place for your daughter to receive the surgery? If I come across any, I will e-mail you. In the meantime, I will keep you and your daughter in my prayers.

hiwotie on June 28, 2010:

Hello every body

I am hiwotie from ethiopia. i have a daugter of 7 month but she has a herat problem( natural) so our doctors recommended that surgery is mandatory. So would you tell me adress for free sponsor

please tell me via

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on March 01, 2010:

maudine_05 - thanks so much for stopping in and leaving your comment! I appreciate it. Blessings to you.

maudine_05 from United States on February 28, 2010:

2 Thumps up!

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 15, 2009:

jacobkuttyta - you are welcome. Thanks for reading.

Jacob from Delhi, India on October 15, 2009:

Thanks for the informative hub.

Keep posting

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 13, 2009:

Godslittlechild - thank you for your comment. It can only be by God's grace that I am still around! He has truly been good to me.

Godslittlechild on October 13, 2009:

You're a real survivor! Thanks for the inspiration!

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 11, 2009:

O Tommy - thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. My daughter has CP so she has seen a pediatric occupational therapist since she was six months old. I really appreciate all the work pediatric therapists do! My heart goes out to the little babies waiting to have heart surgeries and diagnosed as failure to thrive. I pray that each of them are able to gain the necessary weight and reach the age for them to have the necessary surgery so that the quality of their lives can be improved.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 11, 2009:

breakfastpop - thanks for stopping by! At one time I was confused and angry at God for allowing me to have this heart condition, but really it has helped shape me into who I am today. I believe that God can always turn what was meant for bad into something good.

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 11, 2009:

specialk3749 - I am really hoping your nephew is seeing a cardiologist who has experience treating adults who have congenital heart defects. It is very important. For a list of these specialized cardiologists, you can go to Thanks for reading!

Cari Jean (author) from Bismarck, ND on October 11, 2009:

Hey Mom! I wonder too how you and dad did it, being so young and far away from necessary medical care. While some things I have gone through with my daughter have been difficult, I can't imagine seeing your daughter go through three open heart surgeries as a child. I am very thankful for parents like you!

OTmommy from Southern USA on October 10, 2009:

Very informative! I am an occupational therapist working with infants and toddlers with special needs. Many of my clients have heart defects. Another symptom I often see is babies with feeding problems who can't get that suck-swallow-breathe pattern down, so they either guzzle the bottle or breast, or only drink small amounts. This eventually leads to poor weight gain. Many of the babies I work with are waiting to have heart surgery until they gain a certain amount of weight and reach a certain age. The ironic thing is because of the heart defect, they aren't good feeders and are sometimes diagnosed with failure to thrive.

breakfastpop on October 10, 2009:

Dear Cari Jean,

Very well-written informative hub. I am so sorry you had to suffer through this.

Specialk3749 on October 09, 2009:

Very educational, Cari! I have had one baby born with a heart murmur and thankfully, it went away. I do have a nephew who has down syndrom and he has heart problems. He had his first surgery when he was under a year of age. He hasn't had any problems till this past year when he started passing out from over exhaustion. They are now watching his heart closely. He is 26 years old now! I'm looking forward to reading your hub about adults.

Deone on October 09, 2009:

Very well written,Cari..Sometimes I look back on that time and wonder how we made it through. Dad and I were so young and you had so much to endure..

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