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Learning About Severe Coarctation of the Aorta in Newborns

Heart with narrowed aorta

What is coarctation of the aorta?

Coarctation of the aorta is a type of congenital heart defect. Congenital heart defects are heart problems a baby is born with. These heart problems are usually diagnosed at or before birth.

The aorta is the large blood vessel that sends oxygen-rich blood (red blood) from the heart out to the body. Coarctation (say "ko-ark-TAY-shun") means a section of this blood vessel is narrowed or pinched. The heart has to work extra hard to pump the blood through it.

If the narrowing is severe, not enough blood can flow to the lower half of the body. Over time, this can damage the kidneys and the liver as well as weaken the heart.

How is coarctation of the aorta diagnosed?

Your doctor may hear abnormal heart sounds, such as a heart murmur, when he or she examines your newborn.

Your doctor will order tests to find the cause of abnormal sounds or of symptoms. The most common test used to identify this defect is called an echocardiogram, or "echo" for short. It uses sound waves to make an image of your baby's heart.

Your baby may have other tests, such as an ECG or EKG (electrocardiogram), chest X-ray, and checking the amount of oxygen in the blood.

A fetal ultrasound, which lets your doctor see an image of your baby before birth, sometimes finds this defect.

What are the symptoms?

Newborns may have symptoms such as:

  • Fast breathing.
  • Sweating while feeding.
  • Not eating well.
  • Being fussy a lot of the time.

How is it treated?

Your doctor will help you understand your baby's condition, your treatment choices, and what to expect from each choice.

Your baby may get medicine right away to relax the aorta and help make it wider. The medicine is called prostaglandin, or PGE. This treatment is temporary. Surgery is needed to repair the aorta.

In surgery, the doctor will take out the narrowed part of the aorta and then reattach the ends together. This allows the blood to flow the way it should.

What can you expect?

  • If your baby has trouble breathing, the doctor may use a ventilator. This machine helps your baby breathe. To use the machine, the doctor puts a soft tube through your baby's mouth into the windpipe.
  • The hospital staff will give your baby the nutrition he or she needs. The doctor may feed your baby through a soft tube that goes through the nose and into the stomach. Or the doctor may use an IV that goes through the belly button to do this.
  • Your baby may need oxygen. It is given to the baby through a tube in the nose or throat.
  • Your baby will be kept comfortable and warm.
  • It may seem that your baby is getting lots of tests. All of these tests help your doctor keep track of your baby's condition and give the best treatment possible.
  • After treatment, your baby will need routine checkups to check his or her heart.
  • It's hard to be apart from your baby, especially when you worry about his or her condition. Know that the hospital staff is well prepared to care for babies with this condition. They will do everything they can to help. If you need it, ask for support from friends and family. You can also ask the hospital staff about counselling and support.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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