Congenital heart disease in babies is one of the most common types of birth defects, which happens due to abnormal development of the heart in the womb. The reported incidence is 1 per 100 live births irrespective of economic and geographic variations. While most heart defects can be easily diagnosed by the ultrasound scan during pregnancy, others are diagnosed after the baby is born. Serious heart defects present early in infancy may not be picked up until a child is older. The baby can remain undiagnosed for a long time if a thorough check-up hasn’t been conducted post-birth. Unfortunately, ultrasound scanning in our country is not well-advanced and often misses heart defects. Research shows congenital heart defects can be related to an abnormality in the number of an infant’s chromosomes, single gene defects or environmental factors including deleterious side-effects of maternal drugs consumptions during pregnancy. Here are the five signs to watch out if your baby has congenital heart disease:
Poor weight gain: A child, who is not gaining weight after proper feeding, may be suffering from an underlying heart condition. Normally, a mother produces enough milk for a child’s consumption. If the child’s weight is not increasing in spite of having adequate breast milk or formula feeds, he/she may be unable to take adequate amount or lose energy due to rapid breathing. Such babies tend to get tired and stop feeding, followed by hunger, also popularly known as “suck rest suck cycle”. Babies born with low birth weight with dysmorphic features are likely to have underlying chromosomal defects with cardiac problems. Parents must immediately consult a paediatric cardiologist in such cases. Premature babies, twins or triplets, and IVF deliveries are more prone to heart defects.
Body temperature and colour: Babies with heart failure are likely to be sweaty during feeding, and lethargic or irritable in between, tending towards cold, clammy limbs. Prolonged unexplained fever, swelling in the hands, ankles or feet, bluish discolouration in the body are some common symptoms. A bluish tinge is seen prominently in warm parts of the body like lips, tongue, tips of the tongue, and if noted, then the baby’s oxygen level should be checked promptly with a simple non-invasive saturation test. This occurs due to an inadequate amount of oxygen carried within the blood, leading to bluish disclouration, a condition called cyanosis.
Heart murmur and chest infection: After birth, the first sign of congenital heart disease is often the presence of an abnormal heart sound called “murmur” though its absence does not rule out a defect. Apart from that breathing difficulty, recurrent hospital admissions due to infections of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs indicate complications due to a heart defect.
Family history: It is recommended to thoroughly check the family history in order to understand the recurrence patterns in family, before taking any clinical decision. A strong genetic influence often leads to cardiac malformations in future generations. In addition to genetic abnormalities, certain medications used during pregnancy also increase the risk. If one parent or sibling has a congenital heart defect, then the incidence is higher.
Mother and child: If the mother had no health issues, but there has been a history of repeated abortions or elderly pregnancy, then the possibility of heart disease in the baby must be considered. During pregnancy, the mother has to avoid use of alcohol, smoking or drugs, contact with toxins, obesity, incidence of diabetes, poor eating habits. Certain viral infections may increase the risk during pregnancy and may affect the baby as well. She must consult her doctor before taking any medication or incorporating any practices in her routine.
In conclusion, it is important to take immediate expert advice from a skilled paediatric cardiologist, who has years of experience in treating such babies. Babies born with congenital heart disease must be treated within a stipulated time so that their condition remains operable, which can definitely add years to their life. Early diagnosis not only saves a life, but also improves the child’s quality of life letting him/her a longer, healthy and normal life. Congenital heart disease in infants is a serious health condition that requires meticulous care and highly advanced treatment by expert doctors. Every mother must undergo preliminary tests and stick to a healthy diet during pregnancy to reduce the risk. After birth, if any symptoms like rapid heartbeat, breathing problem, chest pain, extreme tiredness, excessive sweating, bluish tinge and poor feeding appear, the child must be immediately treated to avoid a life-long health condition.
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Dr. Subhendu Mandal
Consultant, Department of Paediatric Cardiology