If Your Baby Has Congenital Heart Defects Surgery

Should your newborn need surgery for a congenital heart defect, a defect that is there from birth, you can take some comfort knowing these procedures are safer and more effective than ever.

Thanks to new technology, surgeons have easier and better ways to fix your baby’s heart.

There are two main options. The first one is open-heart surgery. The second one uses a catheter, and that doesn’t require opening up the infant’s chest.

Naturally, any parent is going to worry when their little one needs surgery. But the more you learn about what’s involved with each of these, the better you may feel about your child having a long and healthy life.

What Is Cardiac Catheterization?

More and more, surgeons are able to repair hearts using catheters -- this holds true for babies and adults.

The surgeon inserts a catheter, which is a thin, flexible tube, into a blood vessel in the leg and then guides it to the heart. They can see exactly where the catheter is inside your baby with special X-ray equipment.


These procedures, known as cardiac catheterizations, are used for two main heart repairs: closing a hole or opening a narrowed valve or artery.

One common congenital heart defect is a hole in one of the chamber walls.

Your doctor will call it an atrial septal defect, or ASD. It is a hole in the wall that divides the two upper chambers, which together are called the atria.

Using a catheter, the surgeon can place a tiny umbrella-shaped patch over the hole. As your baby grows, tissue will form over the covering and keep the wall together.

If It’s a Valve Problem

Sometimes, babies have trouble with the valves in their heart. Every heart has four valves that allow blood to pass from the atria to the two lower chambers, called the ventricles. From those, blood goes out to the main arteries, which then pump it to the lungs and the rest of the body.

Sometimes, a valve is too narrow to let blood flow well. A catheter can take a little balloon to the valve and inflate it. This widens the opening and allows the blood to flow better.


Catheter procedures alone might not fix your baby’s heart. Some children need medicine, or they might need surgery when they are a little older.

But these procedures can make blood flow better and keep your baby healthy while care continues in the months and years ahead.

What Is Open-Heart Surgery?

In some cases, your doctor will tell you that catheterization isn’t an option. They may tell you that your baby needs open-heart surgery.

Defects that might be treated with open-heart surgery include holes in the heart, valve problems, narrow arteries, and other, more complex conditions.

Sometimes, the pulmonary artery, which goes out of the heart to the lungs, and the aorta, which pumps blood to the body, are reversed or not fully separated.

Fortunately, doctors can fix many congenital heart defects with surgery and other procedures. Sometimes, infants need several procedures as they grow up.

What to Expect

Depending on the problem, your baby may get surgery or catheterization within hours of being born. Other times, it may happen days or months later.


In some cases, your little one may already be in the hospital the day of the surgery. Or you might bring them in the night before.

Most of the time, babies get anesthesia so they aren’t awake during the procedure. They’ll be on a heart-lung machine, which will keep the blood circulating and oxygen flowing.

Seek out family and friends for their support, as this is naturally an anxious time. You should feel free to ask any questions of the doctors or nurses involved with your baby’s care. More information often means more peace of mind.

How Long Will It Take?

This will depend on the situation. Don’t be concerned if it takes a few hours.

You can ask ahead of time how long it will take, but remember this is only an estimate.

Recovery in the Hospital

After surgery, your baby will probably move to what’s called the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. The amount of time your little one spends there will depend on the procedure and how the recovery is going.

When the doctors say it’s OK to bring your baby home, they’ll give you plenty of instructions on home care, follow-up appointments, and what to do if you have questions or concerns.

What Happens After Surgery?

Your baby’s recovery time should be much faster and easier if they get catheterization instead of an open-heart operation.

But no matter which procedure your baby gets, they will need follow-up appointments, tests and, perhaps, medicine that they’ll have to take for a long time.

Be aware that your child may need more surgeries as they grow up. As their heart gets bigger, replacement valves, for example, will need to be changed. Your doctor will tell you what they’ll need, and when.

Babies with congenital heart defects, even those who have had a successful surgery, often tire more quickly than other children their age. That can happen as they feed, which in turn, may slow their growth for a while. Talk with your doctor or nurses about whether you should change your baby’s feeding schedule.

They may be a little slower to reach some early milestones relating to height, weight, rolling over, and sitting up. But after all that your family has been through, you may greet even delayed breakthroughs with more enthusiasm than if they’d never had surgery.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on August 24, 2020



National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “How Are Congenital Heart Defects Treated?”

Mayo Clinic: “Congenital Heart Defects in Children: Treatment and Drugs.”

CDC: “Facts About Congenital Heart Defects.”

American Heart Association: “Congenital Heart Defects Surgery.”

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