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Congenital Heart Defects: Caring for Your Child - Topic Overview

Getting your child to eat well

Nutrition is very important for children who have heart defects. Getting your child to eat right can be a challenge. Children with congenital heart defects:

  • Often tire when eating, so they eat less and may not get enough calories. Feeding may take longer than you expect.
  • Tend to use more calories (have a higher metabolic rate) than other children.

To help overcome feeding difficulties or lack of weight gain:

  • Learn to recognize your baby's first signs of hunger, such as fidgeting and sucking on a fist. This will help you to begin feeding before your baby starts to cry. Your baby will have more energy to eat well if he or she isn't tired from crying.
  • Use a soft, special nipple made for babies born early (premature infants). These nipples make it is easier for your baby to get enough formula or breast milk if you bottle-feed.
  • Burp your baby often, especially when using a bottle. Babies who have trouble sucking take in large amounts of air when they eat, which makes them feel full before they get enough breast milk or formula.
  • Feed small, frequent meals. Smaller meals don't require as much energy to eat or digest.

If you have difficulty preparing balanced meals, talk with a registered dietitian. Ask your doctor whether you should increase the number of calories in each meal.

Preventing a heart infection

A congenital heart defect can raise the risk of an infection in the heart called endocarditis. To help prevent this infection, your child needs to take excellent care of his or her teeth throughout life. Good oral care can limit the growth of mouth bacteria that could get into the bloodstream and lead to infection. Call your child's doctor if he or she has signs of a skin infection or infected wound.

Some children take antibiotics before having any dental and surgical procedures that could put bacteria or fungi into the blood. The antibiotics lower the risk of getting endocarditis.

Helping with emotional issues

Children and teens with congenital heart defects may have self-esteem issues because of how they look. They may have scars from surgery, and they may be smaller, have clubbing, or have limits on how active they can be.

Children may feel alone and have trouble coping because they have to stay in the hospital often. Most children deal well with having a heart defect. But some children with serious heart defects may have a hard time feeling "normal."

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