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Heart Defect Repair Surgery in Children: What to Expect at Home

Your Child's Recovery

A congenital heart defect is a problem with how a child's heart formed. The doctor repaired your child's heart defect through a cut, called an incision, in the chest.

Your child will probably get tired easily for several weeks after coming home. They may have a low fever at first. This usually goes away in 1 or 2 days. Your child's chest will be sore for the first few weeks. The healthcare team will teach you how to take care of your child's incision. The incision will leave a scar that will fade with time. If you are interested, talk to your child’s healthcare team about what you can do to lessen scarring.

Your child will probably feel more tired than usual for several weeks after surgery. Your child will have activity restrictions for 6 weeks. But it may take longer for your child to fully recover. How long it takes will depend on the type of heart defect your child had.

Surgery to repair a congenital heart defect can be stressful for you and your child. Some children find that they feel sad or more emotional while they are recovering after this surgery. This may last for up to 6 weeks after surgery. Talk with your doctor if this sadness continues or you have concerns about how your child is feeling.

This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for your child to recover. But each person recovers at a different pace. Following the steps below can help your child recover as quickly as possible. Your child's healthcare team will also give you care instructions.

How can you care for your child at home?


  • Have your child rest when your child feels tired.
  • For 3 months, make sure your child avoids lifting anything that would make your child strain. This may include a heavy backpack, heavy grocery bags and milk containers, or bags of cat litter or dog food.
  • Have your child hold a pillow over the incision when your child coughs or takes deep breaths. This will support your child's chest and decrease the pain.
  • Have your child do breathing exercises at home as instructed by your healthcare team. This will help prevent pneumonia.
  • For 6 weeks or until the healthcare team says it is okay:
    • Your child should not ride a bike, play running games or contact sports, go swimming, or take part in gym class. It is okay for your child to walk and play with toys.
    • Your child should not do activities that could cause a blow to the chest, such as wrestling or playing catch with a ball.
    • Do not pick up your child by the arms. This can put stress on the chest incision. Lift up your child by putting your arms behind your child's shoulders and under your child's rear end.
  • Your child may shower after surgery with the water running down their back, if the healthcare team okays it. Make sure the water doesn't hit the incision directly. Pat the incision dry, don't rub the incision. Your child should not swim or take a bath for the first 2 weeks, or until your healthcare team tells you it is okay.
  • Do not apply any lotions, oils, or creams to the incision until it has completely healed. If the incision has a dressing, follow the healthcare team's instructions of when and how to change the dressing.
  • Your doctor will tell you when your child can go back to school or daycare. Your child will probably have to spend at least 1 week at home. Your child will likely be able to go back to school or daycare within 1 to 2 weeks after they leave the hospital.
  • For the first week after surgery, it's a good idea to keep your child away from large crowds and people that you know have a cold or influenza (flu). This lowers your child's chance of getting an infection.


  • Your child can eat his or her normal diet unless the healthcare team gives you other instructions. If your child's stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
  • If your child's bowel movements are not regular right after surgery, you can help him or her to avoid constipation and straining. Have your child drink plenty of water. The doctor may suggest fibre, a stool softener, or a mild laxative.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when your child can restart any medicines. The doctor will also give you instructions about your child taking any new medicines.
  • Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse advice line if you think your child is having a problem with a medicine.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If the doctor gave your child a prescription medicine for pain, give it as prescribed.
    • If your child is not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask the doctor if your child can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If you think the pain medicine is making your child sick to the stomach:
    • Have your child take the medicine after meals (unless the doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your child's doctor for a different pain medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, be sure your child takes them as directed. Your child should not stop taking them just because your child feels better. Your child needs to take all the antibiotics.
  • If your child takes a blood thinner, be sure to get instructions about how to take this medicine safely. Blood thinners can cause serious bleeding problems.

Incision care

  • Your child will have a dressing over the cut (incision). The dressing is usually removed within 48 hours of surgery. Your child's healthcare team will tell you how to take care of the dressing and if your child needs a dressing before they leave the hospital.
  • If your child has strips of tape on the cut (incision) the doctor made, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.
  • It’s best to leave the incision alone to heal. If it gets dirty, use a cup of tap water and let it run down over the incision until it’s clean. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. They can slow healing. Pat the incision dry. Don’t rub the incision.
  • Don’t use any lotions, oils, or creams on the incision until it completely heals. You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it weeps or rubs against clothing.
  • Keep the area clean and dry.

Other instructions

  • Keep track of your child's weight. Weigh them every day at the same time of day, on the same scale, in the same amount of clothing. A sudden increase in weight can be a sign of a problem with their heart. Tell your doctor if your child has a sudden weight gain in 2 to 3 days. Your child's doctor can tell you how much weight gain to watch for.
  • Heart defects can increase your child's risk of an infection in the heart. Talk to your doctor about your child's risk. Your child may need to take antibiotics before certain dental or surgical procedures to prevent infection. Help your child take good care of their teeth and gums to help prevent infection.

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.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child passes out (loses consciousness).
  • Your child has trouble breathing.
  • Your child has severe chest pain.
  • Your child has sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or coughs up blood.

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child is dizzy or light-headed.
  • Your child is sick to his or her stomach or cannot keep fluids down.
  • Your child has pain that does not get better after he or she takes pain medicine.
  • Your child has signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision or wound sites.
    • A fever.
  • Your child has loose stitches, or the incision comes open.
  • Bright red blood has soaked through the bandage over the incision.
  • Your child has swelling, such as swollen or puffy eyelids.
  • Your child has sudden weight gain in 2 to 3 days. Your child's doctor can tell you how much weight gain to watch for.
  • Your child has increased swelling in his or her legs, ankles, or feet.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if your child has any problems.

Where can you learn more?

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