What Is Gastroschisis?

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on July 16, 2023
4 min read

Gastroschisis is a rare condition. It’s when your baby is born with a hole near their belly button, and their intestines, and sometimes other organs like the stomach and liver, end up on the outside of their body.

It starts as your baby grows inside your womb. If the muscles in your baby’s belly don’t form correctly, it leaves an opening and their internal organs push through it.

Babies with gastroschisis will need an operation soon after they are born and may need to stay in the hospital for some time. While this condition can be especially scary for parents, babies often do fine once the condition is fixed.

Gastroschisis occurs in about one out of every 5,000 births. It’s most common in the babies of young moms in their late teens or early 20s. White teenagers have higher rates than African-American teenagers. And it happens more often in moms who smoke or drink alcohol.

There are multiple potential causes. It’s not always one thing, and some cases have no clear cause. Some think it’s due to changes in the baby’s genes or chromosomes, or a problem with blood flow to the digestive tract. Others say it could be medicines the mom takes, or exposure to things in the environment. Some doctors believe it could be caused by what the mom eats or drinks. But others say that has nothing to do with it.

Around the 16th week of your pregnancy, the doctor can do a test to look for a certain protein in your blood. If the level is high, the doctor will do an ultrasound test.

Ultrasound is a painless way to look inside your womb. It can help determine if your baby has gastroschisis. If so, you should see a doctor who is an expert in high-risk pregnancy.

If your baby has gastroschisis, you’ll need extra attention while you are pregnant. Ultrasound and other tests will help the doctor know how the baby is growing and developing. That’s important because babies with gastroschisis tend to be smaller than others. As your pregnancy goes on, you will have tests more often.

The doctor will probably ask you to keep track of how often the baby moves inside of you. That’s called fetal movement counting. It’s a way to know if your baby is well and moves as it should. The doctor will explain how to count the movements and what to look for.

Your doctor will probably induce (bring on) labor at 35 to 37 weeks. That’s a bit earlier than the normal 40 weeks. They’ve learned that it’s safer to have the baby early. Gastroschisis doesn’t necessarily mean you need a C-section (an operation in which the baby is removed through an incision in the lower abdomen). But you should plan to deliver at a hospital with an intensive care nursery. That’s because the baby will need surgery soon after birth.

With gastroschisis, the organs that grow outside the baby aren’t protected like they would be if they were inside. They are exposed to amniotic fluid, the liquid that surrounds the baby in the womb. That can cause damage to the organs. Once the baby is born, the intestines may be twisted. Or the bowel may not be in the right position. The baby could have trouble with digestion and feeding.

If the organs were not damaged too badly before birth, the baby has a good chance to grow normally once the organs are back inside.

There are two ways to fix the problem.

Primary gastroschisis repair is done if the condition isn’t too severe. Right after the baby is born, the surgeon will put the organs back inside the baby’s belly. The surgeon will then repair the opening.

Staged gastroschisis repair is for more serious cases. After the baby is born, the organs that stick out are carefully covered to protect them. Over several days, they are slowly pushed back inside. After everything is back in, the surgeon operates to fix the hole in the belly.

The baby may need help to breathe after the surgery because of added pressure from the organs that are now back inside their body. The doctors will want to keep the baby’s stomach empty, so they will be fed intravenously (through an IV), not through the mouth. This is also a way to safely give medicine.

The organs that have been put back may be thick and swollen. Your baby will probably have to stay in the hospital for weeks, sometimes longer, until everything heals and begins to work correctly.

Everyone hopes for a healthy child. But with good care for you and for your baby, both before and after birth, you can expect a good outcome in spite of this birth defect.