Newborn Heart Screenings: Peace of Mind

If you’re expecting a baby, you are hoping to leave the hospital with a healthy baby in tow. One way health care providers are helping ensure your baby is healthy and strong enough to go home is through routine newborn heart screenings.

As part of Indiana law, all newborns are required to have blood oxygen levels tested before leaving the hospital. A pulse oximetry test will be performed on your baby before you and your newborn go home, helping to detect possible heart defects, and giving you peace of mind.

How common are heart defects?

Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 babies are born with a heart defect each year. Many of these defects can be treated and only a fraction are critical. Signs and symptoms depend on the defect. Some babies can have no outward symptoms while others might have bluish-tinted nails or lips, tire easily when feeding or have trouble breathing.

There are seven types of heart defects that are classified as critical congenital heart defects by the medical community. Babies with one of these defects need treatment as soon as possible, so early detection is important.

Other heart defects can be just as severe and may also require treatment soon after birth. However, pulse oximetry screening may not detect other heart defects as consistently as it does these seven.

What does the pulse oximetry test do?

A pulse oximeter is a small sensor (similar to an adhesive bandage) that is taped to your baby’s finger and a toe. When the machine is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The sensor is painless and the red light does not get hot. It measures how much oxygen is in the blood and how well the heart is working to get oxygen throughout the body.

All babies be tested before they leave the hospital, however babies born within five weeks of their due date will be tested about 24 hours after birth. The test may be performed up to three times before further evaluation becomes necessary. That could include a clinical evaluation by a pediatrician, an echocardiogram (a noninvasive ultrasound of the baby’s heart) and perhaps a consultation with a pediatric cardiologist.

Understanding your newborn’s test results

The test is looking for the seven critical types of heart defects. If the results are “negative” (which means they are within the normal range), it means the test did not show signs of a critical heart defect. Because the test doesn’t detect all cases, it’s still possible to have a defect with a negative screening result.

If the results are “positive” (out of the normal range), it means the test results showed low levels of oxygen in the baby’s blood. This can be a sign of a critical heart defect. It doesn’t always mean that the baby has a defect; it just means that more testing is needed.

If your baby passes the pulse oximetry test, there is nothing you need to do. If the hospital recommends further testing, understand that it’s because additional information is needed. It doesn’t automatically mean something is wrong. That additional data can be gathered quickly so you have answers before you leave the hospital.

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