Omphalocele is a birth defect in which a baby is born with their intestines or other organs protruding outside of the body through the navel (belly button).

Normally, as a fetus’s intestines grow during the first ten weeks of pregnancy, they push out into the umbilical cord, then go back into the belly. In babies with an omphalocele, they stay outside of the body. In small omphaloceles, only some intestines are exposed; in larger ones, multiple organs may be outside of the body.

Unlike gastroschisis, in which the exposed organs are not covered and can be damaged by amniotic fluid, the intestines in a baby with an omphalocele are covered in a thin, translucent sac that protects them. However, babies with an omphalocele may have other issues:

  • The abdominal cavity that normally holds the organs may not grow to its full size.
  • The exposed organs may become damaged, especially if the sac is ruptured.
  • Damage may occur to an organ if its twisted or its blood supply is reduced.
  • Babies with omphaloceles may have Down's syndrome or other types of genetic syndromes. Due to this possibility, you'll be offered genetic counseling and additional testing.
  • Babies with omphaloceles often have other birth defects. Your baby will be thoroughly screened by ultrasound to look for these potential issues.

An omphalocele is immediately evident when a baby is born. During pregnancy, it may be discovered through prenatal screening tests such as ultrasounds or blood tests.

Treatment Options for Omphalocele

At Mercy, our neonatologists and pediatric surgeons carefully develop expert, personalized treatment plans for every baby with an abdominal wall birth defect. Each infant’s treatment will depend on several factors, including the size of the omphalocele and the baby’s overall health.

In most cases, we will perform surgery very soon after birth to place the organs back into the abdominal cavity and repair the abdominal wall.

  • Single repair: If the abdominal wall hole is small and the intestines are only partially exposed, we may be able to complete the surgery in one procedure and close the hole.
  • Staged repair: Larger abdominal wall holes with multiple organs exposed may require several procedures to repair. Between surgeries, a protective material is placed over the exposed organs until they can be placed back inside the body.

Following surgery, infants spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), where we closely monitor their recovery until they are well enough to leave the unit. In some cases, an omphalocele may cause complications with feeding, digestion and bowel obstruction. Our neonatologists and pediatric surgeons carefully evaluate every baby’s progress to support their recovery and growth.

Learning that your baby has an abdominal wall defect can be very upsetting, but Mercy’s neonatology teams have the expertise to help our tiniest patients recover and thrive.

Mercy Neonatology

Our neonatology department includes experienced physician specialists, nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists and other specialists who care for critically ill newborns. Learn more.

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