40,000 infants born with congenital heart defects every year

newborn baby asleep with heart flower and teddy bear photogragh

For most people, the very notion of having heart surgery performed on their newborn is terrifying. In fact, a study published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) found that parents whose children have undergone cardiac surgery had an elevated risk for trauma, depression, and psychological distress. Even though outcomes from infant heart surgery have improved over the past decades, the prospect nonetheless induces anxiety.

According to the JAHA review, approximately 30% of parents exhibited symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than 80% had clinical symptoms of trauma and emotional distress, and up to 50% experienced depression or anxiety. The study’s authors suggested that parents of infants with congenital heart defects requiring surgery could benefit from referral to mental health resources and emotional support systems.

An estimated 40,000 babies are diagnosed with congenital heart defects (CHDs) every year, with about 1 in 4 (25%) being serious. These defects involve structural problems in the heart that are present at birth. CHDs are the most common form of birth defect. They can range from simple defects that require only monitoring to life-threatening conditions necessitating open-heart surgery. The good news is that, with advances in medicine, the vast majority of children born with complex heart defects survive to adulthood and enjoy normal, active lives.

Every newborn in the United States is tested for heart defects within the first 24 hours of life. The screening — called pulse oximetry — is painless and involves placing a sensor on the baby’s skin, usually the foot. The sensor measures oxygen levels in the baby’s blood and can detect problems early. There are at least 18 specifically identified types of CHDs. Most have no known cause and are presumed to be genetic. Those infants diagnosed with serious CHDs are referred to a pediatric cardiologist for further treatment and/or surgery.

February is Congenital Heart Defects Awareness (CHDA) Month, with February 7-14 observed as CHDA Week. In 2014, the American Heart Association and The Children’s Heart Foundation teamed up to launch the Little Hats, Big Hearts™ program in which volunteers around the country knit tiny red hats for babies born in February and distribute them to participating hospitals in more than 40 states. The program continues to grow today, encouraging mothers and children across the nation to live heart-healthy lives.

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