Congenital Heart Defects: When to Call a Doctor

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on August 07, 2020

When your doctor tells you that your baby was born with a condition affecting their heart, or a congenital heart defect, you’ll want to know when your little one needs medical help.

You may have more peace of mind when you can recognize signs of heart problems and know when to seek help from your doctor.

Serious Symptoms

Signs of congenital heart defects include:

Blue skin. Your baby could have a bluish tint to their skin, which doctors call cyanosis, especially around their mouth and fingers. It happens when their heart can’t pump enough blood through their lungs to get oxygen to the rest of their body.

Look for signs of cyanosis when they are crying or feeding. And call your doctor immediately if they appear.

Poor circulation. If your baby tires easily and isn’t growing at the normal rate for their age, they may have poor blood circulation. Your doctor can check on that.

This is true for older children, as well, who tire easily during routine play. Check with your child’s pediatrician if you notice any of these symptoms.


Trouble breathing. Shortness of breath isn’t normal in healthy children. If your baby grunts when breathing, or has trouble catching their breath during feedings, call your doctor.

Inflammation. If you notice swelling in your baby’s legs, abdomen, or around their eyes, call your doctor. These are serious signs of a heart defect, or even heart failure.

When It’s Heart Failure

Different types of congenital defects can put extra strain on your baby’s heart and can lead to heart failure.

That’s when their heart is too weak to pump blood effectively throughout their body.

Signs of heart failure include:

  • Buildup of fluid in the body
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the stomach or lower legs

If you notice any of these symptoms, call a doctor immediately. Heart failure is very serious, but it can often be treated.

Understanding Heart Murmurs

Your doctor may have identified a heart murmur when they listened to your baby’s heartbeat. Some heart defects can cause murmurs, which are basically just extra noise during a heartbeat.

But not all murmurs are symptoms of a heart defect. In fact, they’re common in healthy children, too. But if your baby’s doctor notices one, they may refer you to a pediatric cardiologist, or children’s heart doctor.

Looking Ahead

You’re naturally going to be concerned about your child’s congenital heart defect. But try to be aware and informed, rather than too worried.

Keep in mind that a surgeon can often repair these problems so your child lives a normal life, with more doctor visits to make sure all is well. Once you know what to look for, you can make sure your child gets the care they need.

WebMD Medical Reference



Children’s Heart Foundation: “How Common Are Congenital Heart Defects?”

CDC: “Facts About Tetralogy of Fallot.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Congenital Heart Defects?” “Types of Congenital Heart Defects.”

Mayo Clinic: “Congenital Heart Defects in Children: Symptoms.”

American Heart Association: “Symptoms and Diagnosis of Congenital Heart Defects.”

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