Congenital Heart Defects & the Breastfeeding Relationship

Congenital Heart Defects that are Sometimes Present at Birth:

mom kissing baby
  • A hole in the wall of the heart between the right and left atria or upper chambers of the heart. 
  • A hole in the wall between the right and left ventricles or lower chambers of the heart.
  • The connection between the pulmonary artery and aorta failed to close and remains open.
  • Narrowing of the aorta.
  • Aortic valve disease or blockage.
  • Blood flow to the pulmonary artery is poor.
  • Tetralogy of Fallot is a combination of heart defects.
  • The large arteries of the heart are reversed in position.
  • The left ventricle is small and underdeveloped.

Heart failure may occur if the baby’s heart cannot function properly, this may happen immediately after birth or weeks later.

The Symptoms of Congenital Heart Failure

newborn baby, pretty baby

•    Fatigue or weakness.

•    The baby has a poor appetite.

•    The baby is sweating while breastfeeding.

•    The baby has a weak suck.

•    The baby’s breathing seems fast.

•    The baby has short sucking bursts and long resting periods.

•    Uncoordinated sucking and breathing rhythms.

•    The baby’s skin seems to have a bluish tint to it.

•    You can feel the baby’s heartbeat just by holding him/her.

• Infant heart murmur.

•    Poor weight gain.

How does a congenital heart defect influence the breastfeeding relationship?

Why Breastfeed?

  • Babies with heart problems that breastfeed:
  1. Maintain higher and less variable oxygen saturation levels while feeding.
  2. Maintain higher transcutaneous oxygen pressure levels during and sometimes for several minutes after feeding.
  3. Gain weight much quicker than their formula-fed counterparts. 
  4. Are released from the hospital quicker.
  5. Breast milk protects babies with heart conditions (who are more at risk) from getting respiratory illnesses.

Many caregivers will discourage breastfeeding because they believe that breastfeeding will be too challenging for a baby who has a congenital heart defect. It is crucial first to investigate the needs of each individual baby, some babies with heart problems can still breastfeed exclusively. 

Babies with heart defects will often need calorie supplementation. 

Making Breastfeeding Easier

•    Babies with heart problems often have reflux problems as well. It can help, to breastfeed this baby in a more upright position

•    Breast compression and massage can help a mother increase the fat and calorie content of the milk that her baby is receiving, during a feed.

•    Shorter, more frequent feedings can help the mother increase the fat intake, as well as keep her baby from becoming too fatigued. 

•    The mother can pump milk after each feeding, collecting all the higher calorie hindmilk, which can be given to her baby to increase calorie intake. 

•    Breast milk can be fortified with extra nutrients and calories. 

•    Learn more about a weak suck.

Congenital Heart Defect Prevention

How to Reduce the Risk of Heart Problems Before They Occur

•    Avoid infection with German measles (Rubella).

•    Avoid the use of alcohol or other potent drugs during pregnancy.

•    The mother should take folic acid and vitamin supplements during pregnancy.

Tracy Behr, CBC, CLD (CBI)

Reference: Breastfeeding course information through Child Birth International on the physiology of breastfeeding/health problems/congenital heart defects.

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