Need to talk? Call 1800 882 436.
It's a free call with a maternal child health nurse. *call charges may apply from your mobile

Is it an emergency? Dial 000
If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately.

beginning of content

Congenital heart disease

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Congenital heart disease (CHD) involves a group of different heart problems that are present at birth.
  • These problems can include abnormalities of the heart itself, the heart valves or major blood vessels leading to or away from the heart.
  • CHD can be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors.
  • Some cases of CHD can be seen with an ultrasound during pregnancy.
  • Your baby’s treatment plan will depend on the type and severity of their heart problem.

What is congenital heart disease?

Congenital heart disease (CHD) involves a group of different heart abnormalities that are present at birth. ‘Congenital’ means ‘from birth’ and these health problems may have started from the moment of conception or at any time during pregnancy or during birth. CHD may sometimes be referred to as congenital heart defects or congenital heart differences.

CHD can include problems of the heart itself, the heart valves or major blood vessels leading to or away from the heart. CHD is the most common congenital disorder in newborns. In Australia, there are between 2,400 and 3,000 babies born each year with CHD, which can range from simple to complex. Heart defects can occur alone or together with other health problems, depending on how the heart has developed.

What are the main types of congenital heart disease?

There are many types of congenital heart disease, which can affect the heart in many ways. Here are some examples:

  • A hole in the heart can form in the walls that separate the heart chambers. This hole may allow oxygen-rich blood to mix with oxygen-poor blood.
  • Obstructed blood flow can occur when blood vessels or a heart valve are narrower than normal. When this happens, the heart muscle needs to work harder to pump blood around the body.
  • Abnormal blood vessels can occur when the blood vessels leading to or from the heart are either not positioned correctly or do not form properly.
  • Heart valve abnormalities occur when the heart valves can’t open or close properly, so blood cannot flow around the body easily.
  • An underdeveloped heart occurs when a major part of the heart does not develop properly. When this happens, the heart can’t work as it should.
  • A combination of defects is when a baby has more than one CHD.

For information on specific heart conditions, see the website of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

What are the main causes of congenital heart disease?

CHD can be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Only 1 in 3 babies born with CHD have a known genetic or chromosomal abnormality. Down syndrome is an example of a genetic syndrome associated with heart problems.

Other factors known to increase the chance of congenital heart problems include a family history of CHD and if you’ve had rubella, pre-eclampsia when you’re less than 32 weeks pregnant or poorly controlled diabetes during your pregnancy.

It’s also important that you take care with certain medicines or drugs during your pregnancy since these may also affect your baby’s chance of having CHD. While you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid alcohol or illegal drugs, and to check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any over-the-counter or prescription medicines. Make sure you tell your health provider that you’re pregnant when seeking advice.

Can congenital heart disease be prevented?

Congenital heart disease cannot always be prevented, but there are many things that you can do to reduce your overall risk of having a baby with birth defects.

Be sure that you are up to date with all your scheduled vaccinations, including rubella, since infection during pregnancy can cause heart defects in your baby. Make sure that you are managing any chronic medical conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure properly.

Avoid substances that may be harmful to your baby like alcohol, smoking and strong cleaning products (check the labels before using these). If you are planning a pregnancy and are already taking medications for existing conditions, discuss this with your doctor.

Can congenital heart disease be detected during pregnancy?

Some cases of congenital heart disease can be detected during pregnancy. During your second-trimester ultrasound, your doctor will look for signs of heart problems. If they suspect CHD, your doctor will order a foetal echocardiogram (an ultrasound of your baby’s heart) to help diagnose the exact problem before your baby’s birth.

Other cases of CHD might only be detected after the baby is born, such as if the baby has blueish skin (a sign of CHD).

Some people, especially those with mild forms of CHD, may only be diagnosed as older children, teenagers or adults.

If you doctor has a reason to suspect CHD after birth, they doctor will examine your baby and may order several different tests including an echocardiogram, ECG, chest x-ray, pulse oximetry (used to determine the oxygen level in the blood) and cardiac catheterisation.

How is my care managed during pregnancy and birth?

If your baby is diagnosed with congenital heart disease during pregnancy, your doctor will refer you to a specialist. Early detection of your baby’s heart problem allows your health team to prepare for your baby’s birth and plan for your baby’s treatment. Your doctor will also recommend the best place for your baby to be born, so that you can both get the best care in a hospital experienced in looking after babies with CHD.

How is congenital heart disease managed after the baby is born?

Management of congenital heart disease after birth depends on the type and severity. After the birth, your baby’s health will be closely monitored and they may be connected to a pulse oximetry device, which measures blood oxygen levels. Your baby may need certain medicines either immediately after birth, or when they’re older.

Some babies may need cardiac catheterisation, where a thin flexible tube is inserted into an artery in the leg and then slowly moved towards the heart. This procedure can be used to help diagnose CHD. It can also be used to treat certain heart conditions by stretching a narrow vessel or valve, implanting a stent, or closing a hole. If your baby has a complex heart condition, they may need surgery. This usually occurs before their first birthday.

Resources and support

If your baby has been diagnosed with CHD, your doctor will be able to provide you with detailed information about the nature of your baby’s heart disease, as well as their treatment plan.

To read more about your child’s condition, see the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne website or the Heart Kids website. Both websites have information about specific heart conditions, as well as how each condition is usually managed.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2023


Back To Top

Need more information?

Congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defect (CHD) or congenital heart anomaly is a defect in the structure of the heart and great vessels that is present at birth.

Read more on WA Health website

Congenital Heart Disease | Congenital Heart Defects | HeartKids

Congenital heart disease is a common birth disorder that affects 2400-3000 Australian babies every year. Read more about the impact of this defect.

Read more on HeartKids website

Heart abnormality birth defects - Better Health Channel

Some congenital heart defects are mild and cause no significant disturbance to the way the heart functions.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Cyanotic Congenital Heart Disease (CCHD) | HeartKids

Cyanotic congenital heart disease (CCHD) refers to birth defects that result in a low blood oxygen level & causes a bluish skin colour. Learn more about it.

Read more on HeartKids website

Congenital heart disease: 0-18 years | Raising Children Network

Children with congenital heart disease are born with heart defects. Many heart defects don’t need treatment, and most children go on to live active, healthy lives.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Birth differences (congenital anomalies)

Health problems present from birth include any health condition that a baby is born with and are sometimes called birth defects, birth differences or congenital anomalies.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia - myDr.com.au

A congenital diaphragmatic hernia is a birth defect where there is an abnormal hole in the diaphragm, which allows some of the abdominal organs to protrude into the chest.

Read more on myDr website

Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) | HeartKids

Ventricular septal defect (VSD) is a common birth defect that means there is a hole in the heart. Learn more at HeartKids.

Read more on HeartKids website

Atrial Septal Defect | HeartKids

Atrial septal defect is a birth defect that occurs when there is a hole in the septum that divides the upper chambers of the heart. Learn more about it.

Read more on HeartKids website

Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) | HeartKids

Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) is a severe birth defect in which the heart's left side is underdeveloped or too small. Discover more resources.

Read more on HeartKids website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.