Abdominal wall defects are a type of birth defect that allow the digestive organs—such as the stomach or intestines—to push out of the body through an abnormal opening in the abdomen. It is normal for digestive organs to begin growing outside the abdomen during fetal development. As development continues, the organs should move into the abdomen and become enclosed by the abdominal wall. An abdominal wall defect occurs when the wall does not close normally, which allows some organs to remain outside the abdomen.
There are two main types of abdominal wall defects:
Symptoms of an abdominal wall defect may include:
With either type of abdominal wall defect, there is a risk of injury and infection because the organs are not protected inside the body as they should be. There is also a risk that parts of the digestive system could be pinched or twisted, which compromises blood supply. A loss of blood flow to the digestive system can cause serious problems.
Abdominal wall defects are commonly identified and diagnosed through prenatal ultrasound during the second trimester of pregnancy. If a prenatal ultrasound detects that your baby will have an abdominal wall defect, a multidisciplinary team of specialists in maternal fetal medicine, neonatology, pediatric surgery and other specialties will develop a care plan for your baby’s delivery, including treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Abdominal wall defects are visible during a physical examination at birth. Your baby’s doctor may assess the severity of the condition through X-ray imaging, performed shortly after birth.
When a baby has an abdominal wall defect, the rest of the abdomen may be small and underdeveloped. In many cases, there is not enough room in the abdomen to immediately move the organs back inside the body and correct the defect. The organs must remain outside the body for a few days after birth to give the abdomen time to grow.
When immediate surgery is not an option, sterile protective sheeting is placed over the organs, and a device called a silo is put in place to provide an extra protective layer. A silo houses and protects the protruded organs until the abdomen grows enough to contain the digestive organs. Your baby may also receive breathing help from a machine called a mechanical ventilator while he or she is waiting for surgery.
Once it is safe for your baby to have the abdominal wall defect corrected, a surgeon gently places the digestive organs back into the abdomen and repairs the opening in the abdominal wall. This usually happens a few days to a week after birth.
Dietitians who specialize in treating babies with abdominal wall defects can work with you to find feeding options that provide adequate nourishment and lessen any irritation.
Some babies with abdominal wall defects may develop short bowel syndrome, a condition that occurs when part of the small intestine is missing or not absorbing nutrients. The Intestinal Care Program at Riley at IU Health provides specialized treatment for babies and children with short bowel syndrome.
These resources provide additional information and support for families of babies and children with abdominal wall defects.
Riley at IU Health offers a broad range of supportive services to make life better for families who choose us for their children's care.
Genetics Home Reference is a consumer information website by the U.S. National Library of Medicine that provides information about a variety of medical conditions, including abdominal wall defects.
Learn more about how an omphalocele develops from this U.S. National Library of Medicine website.
The Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition Department at Riley at IU Health participates in medical and nutritional research relating to intestinal failure and short bowel syndrome. Talk to your child’s doctor if you would like to know more about available studies and to learn if your child qualifies for participation in important clinical trials.
In addition to our primary hospital location at the Academic Health Center in Indianapolis, IN, we have convenient locations to better serve our communities throughout the state.