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Tiny ticker, big problem

A newborn baby’s heart is about the size of his or her fist, and it beats some 100,000 times a day. But sometimes a baby is born with a less-than-perfect heart. When there’s an abnormality in the heart’s structure, it’s called a congenital heart defect. There are many, many types of defects, some minor (a hole in the inside walls of the heart), some more serious, such as a heart that’s missing chambers or valves. Most heart defects occur early in pregnancy, before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. Here is some need-to-know info on the condition:

What causes these heart defects?

In most cases, doctors don’t know what causes these problems. They may be hereditary, or they may be linked to other diseases. For example, half of babies with Down syndrome also have a congenital heart defect. One study found that women who smoked early in pregnancy were more likely to have a baby with a heart defect. Some medicines, alcohol and illegal drugs may also raise the risk.

Are they treatable?

Many congenital heart defects don’t need any treatment, but others can be treated with surgery or other procedures. Luckily, many children go on to live normal, active lives, like the 1 million adults in this country living with congenital heart defects. Some may have developmental delays or learning problems, and may need to see a heart specialist regularly.