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Calm for a healing heart

Why children with cardiac defects benefit from lifelong mental health care.

Article Author: Juice Staff

Article Date:

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Children born with heart defects may face surgeries and other treatments in their first days of life, and further health threats can arise later on. Taken across a lifetime, the emotional toll can weigh on both the child and family.

For this reason, the American Heart Association (AHA) is now recommending mental health support be built into the routine care of all people with a congenital (present at birth) heart defect (CHD).

In a new comprehensive report that draws from decades of research, the AHA noted that children with CHD face a higher risk for emotional disorders. When the heart condition is complex, children are five times more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. About half of adults living with heart defects suffer from mood or anxiety problems.

“A congenital heart defect really is very hard on everyone,” said Sunita J. Ferns, MD, a pediatric cardiac electrophysiologist with Wolfson Children’s C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry Heart Institute and director of the Pediatric and Adult Congenital Electrophysiology Program at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “At the same time, mental health resources nationwide are severely lacking compared to the number of CHD patients who need them.”

What is a congenital heart defect?

A CHD affects the structure of a baby’s heart and consequently, how blood flows through the body. It is the most common type of birth defect, impacting 1% of babies in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in four babies born with a CHD will deal with a critical condition and need surgery in the first year of life.

These children may face developmental delays because the heart defect can change the blood flow to the brain, Dr. Ferns said. While necessary for survival, the surgery and recovery process can also cause developmental delays because the baby will likely spend less time in his or her parents’ arms.

“There may be a loss of attachment because they’re not being held and nurtured the way they would be at home,” Dr. Ferns said.

Feeding tubes can delay the development of the sucking reflex in newborns, which means some babies may need physical therapy to learn to eat, Dr. Ferns added.

As children enter school, the developmental difficulties may continue and more psychological or emotional problems may surface during adolescence. Teenagers who feel self-conscious about being different from their peers may act out or stop taking their medications, which may adversely affect their heart condition.

Support for the whole family

It’s not just the children who struggle emotionally, though. Parents may also face enormous stress when their child goes through multiple hospitalizations.

“These families need support from the earliest stages of their child’s life,” Dr. Ferns said.


The pediatric cardiology, electrophysiology, imaging, cardiac intensive care, cardiac anesthesiology and heart surgery teams with Wolfson Children’s C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry Heart Institute treat a full range of pediatric cardiac conditions, from defects present at birth to heart rhythm disorders. To learn more, call 904.202.8550 or visit wolfsonchildrens.com/heart.

Sources: American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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