Fetal Heart Development
What conditions can affect an unborn baby's heart?
Common Heart Problems
Fortunately, heart defects are fairly rare. Only about eight in 1,000 babies are born with heart abnormalities.
Michelle Collins, a certified nurse-midwife and faculty in the nurse-midwifery program at Vanderbilt University, says that the cause of most cardiac defects that are seen at birth is unclear. “Approximately 8 percent of babies born with heart defects have a genetic cause,” Collins says. “For instance, about 40 percent of Down syndrome [children] have associated cardiac defects, as do children born with the genetic disorders Turner’s syndrome, Klinefelter’s syndrome, as well as certain other trisomies (the presence of three copies of a chromosome rather than the normal two).”
Cardiac anomalies or defects fall into four different categories. These include incomplete development, defective development, mal-position, abnormal vessel function, or misplacement of cardiac structures during development.
“Treatment depends on the condition; sometimes it is watchful waiting, sometimes medication given to the fetus via the umbilical cord while still in the uterus or after birth in the neonatal intensive care unit,” Collins says. “Sometimes surgical intervention is required, and in the extreme, a heart transplant may be required. The treatments are as variable as the disorders, and realistically, sometimes there is no treatment.”
Can You Prevent Prenatal Heart Defects?
While some heart defects cannot be prevented, you can decrease your baby’s chances of developing a defect by taking care of yourself and eating healthy foods. “Taking her prenatal vitamins regularly and avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use is the best advice for any pregnant woman,” Collins says. “Any woman considering a pregnancy in the near future should schedule a pre-conceptual visit with her midwife or physician, during which preparation for pregnancy can be discussed, as well as those things she should avoid.”
According to Collins, it is also important that she know her rubella status (whether she is immune or not). A healthcare provider will be able to test her for it and discuss the results. Alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine or other street drugs should be avoided. Any prescribed medication should be discussed with an OB-GYN. Other than that, a balanced diet and good prenatal care, including prenatal vitamins with folic acid, are probably the most effective for your baby’s heart and overall health.
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