Congenital Heart Defects in Children


Learning that your baby may have been born with a heart defect (known as a congenital heart defect) is, naturally, very distressing. You want to make sure your child gets the right care, right away, from experienced specialists in children’s heart problems.

Some heart defects are discovered in the fetus (developing baby) while a woman is pregnant. Others are not found until birth or during the first few months of life. Signs and symptoms could include:

  • Pale gray or blue skin color
  • Rapid breathing
  • Flared nostrils
  • Grunting when breathing
  • Swelling in the legs, abdomen or areas around the eyes
  • Shortness of breath during feedings, leading to poor weight gain

Less serious congenital heart defects may not be diagnosed until later in childhood, because your child may not have previously had any signs of a problem. If signs and symptoms are evident in older children, they may include:

  • Easily becoming short of breath during exercise or activity
  • Easily tiring during exercise or activity
  • Swelling in the hands, ankles or feet

Types of Congenital Heart Defects

Congenital heart defects affect the way blood flows through the heart and to the rest of the body. Defects can range from mild to life-threatening.

Mercy Kids neonatologists and pediatric cardiologists are experts in diagnosing and treating congenital heart defects in infants. 

We care for babies with a range of heart problems, including:

  • Atrioventricular canal defect (AVCD) occurs when the valves and muscle walls that separate the heart's chambers do not form completely. This forces the heart to work harder, which can weaken heart muscles and may lead to an enlarged heart. AVCDs may include one or more of the following:
  • Atrial septal defect (ASD): An opening in the wall (septum) between the two upper chambers of the heart, known as the right and left atria.
  • Ventricular septal defect (VSD): An opening in the wall (septum) between the two lower chambers of the heart, known as the right and left ventricles.
  • Mitral and/or tricuspid valve defects: The valves that separate the upper heart chambers (atria) from the lower heart chambers (ventricles) do not form properly, allowing blood to flow the wrong way through the heart.
  • Ebstein's anomaly happens when an abnormal tricuspid valve allows blood to flow the wrong way through the heart.
  • Fetal arrhythmia means that a baby’s heart rate while in the womb is either too fast or too slow.
  • Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) occurs when the structures on the left side of a baby’s heart, such as the mitral valve and left ventricle, are not fully developed. This affects the heart’s ability to pump blood.
  • Tetralogy of Fallot is a condition made up of four related congenital defects caused by abnormal development of the heart. It affects the direction of blood flow through the heart.
  • Transposition of the great arteries (TGA) occurs when the large vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs and body are improperly connected. This prevents the circulation of oxygen-rich blood to the baby’s body.
  • Truncus arteriosis happens when the aorta and pulmonary artery, which begin as a single blood vessel, fail to divide and become two separate arteries.

Treating Congenital Heart Defects

Mercy pediatric cardiologists have the expertise and experience to treat and manage congenital heart defects to achieve the best possible outcomes for your baby. Mild congenital heart defects may not need treatment. More complex defects require highly specialized care.

Treatment options include:

  • Active surveillance: Children with mild heart defects may be monitored through regular checkups and tests to ensure the defect does not become a problem.
  • Medication: Our pediatric cardiologists may manage some congenital heart defects with medication to prevent complications.
  • Surgery: In complex cases, Mercy pediatric cardiologists diagnose and manage the child. Our partner pediatric cardiovascular surgeons perform surgery to correct the defect—often immediately after birth. Following surgery, children receive ongoing care at Mercy.

Depending on the type of defect, some children may need ongoing treatment and follow-up care.

Mercy understands how concerning congenital heart defects can be, and it is our goal to provide the best possible care for your baby’s heart at birth and throughout their childhood.

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