Caring for children with heart defects

Dr S Indu Nair, Senior Consultant – Neonatology and Paediatrics, Kinder Women’s Hospital and Fertility Clinic, Bengaluru

It’s not an easy situation to deal with when your child is diagnosed with heart abnormalities. It’s stressful when you think about it and you can feel angry, depressed or guilty. However, understanding the seriousness of heart problems and ways to keep your child safe and comfortable can make life easier for both of you.

Heart defects in a child

Some children are born with heart defects, that is, with problems in the structure of their heart. These heart defects are called “congenital heart problems” or problems present at birth. These heart defects can be mild or severe.

Congenital heart defects can be of different types –

Hole in the heart problem – the most common type of heart defect involving an abnormal connection
between the heart chambers

  • Abnormalities found in heart valves
  • Obstruction of blood flow when entering or leaving the heart
  • Abnormal blood vessel connections to the heart
  • Parts of the heart too small to function properly

These heart defects are treated surgically or medically and require regular visits to the pediatric cardiologist. The cardiologist may use several types of diagnostic tools, including ECGs, X-rays, or echocardiograms, to diagnose and assess the progress and effects of treatment.

Things to ask your doctor

Once your child has been diagnosed with a heart defect, be sure to clarify all your doubts to have a clear understanding of the situation and avoid any mistakes when caring for the child. Few things you need to ask:

  • How serious are your child’s heart problems?
  • What are the few things that are completely restricted for the child?
  • Are there any special precautions you need to take when caring for the child?
  • Will the child have any feeding problems? Will the problems persist as the child grows?
  • What if the child is not gaining weight normally?
  • If the child is undergoing surgery, what are the complications associated with the surgery and the long
    long-term prognosis?

After the treatment, the question remains, how to take the utmost care of the child so that his condition does not deteriorate or any other complications may arise? The child needs special attention and care, and so do you. Here are some tips to help you take better care of your child:

1. Ways to prevent bacterial infection: One of the main things to keep in mind is the prevention of infective endocarditis (bacterial infection in the tissues that line the heart and blood vessels). Although rare, there are chances of developing it and proper measures should be taken to prevent it. Maintaining good dental hygiene by reducing any risk of tooth or gum infection can help. Be sure to brush and floss your teeth daily.

2. Feeding your baby: It can be difficult to breastfeed an infant or toddler with heart defects, as they can tire easily. Talk to your doctor or a lactation specialist to find ways to breastfeed. If the baby is formula-fed, follow the nutritionist’s recommendations on calorie count and nutritional benefits to choose the right formula. Give smaller feedings – breastfeeding and formula. Frequent feeding and burping the baby can also help. Look for signs that the baby is hungry instead of waiting for him to cry. Crying can tire the baby and delay the feeding process.

3. Build a strong immune system: Any child with heart defects has a weakened immune system and finds it difficult to fight infections easily. Make sure the baby gets their scheduled flu and pneumonia shots on time. Avoid crowded places and maintain good hand hygiene.

4. Stay physically active: Like all other children, a child with a heart defect can also remain physically active without any restrictions or special rules to follow. Indeed, we must encourage them to practice sports such as swimming, tennis, cycling, etc. after consultation with their pediatric cardiologist. For some congenital heart problems, it may be advisable to avoid very strenuous activities. It is always good to have clear discussions with the doctors as the child grows and to decide on the type of activities that are recommended for him.

5. Periodic checks: Be sure to schedule your child’s periodic checkups with the pediatric cardiologist for a full risk assessment and checkup. If complications arise, they can be treated immediately without putting the baby’s life in further danger.

6. Take therapy sessions to better cope with: Stay informed and ask for help to better cope with the situation. There could be countless episodes filled with stress and anxiety. Consult a counselor to manage stress and keep up to date with the right information to better manage emergencies.