Fetal Cardiology

Diagnosing Congenital Heart Defects, Planning for Pregnancy and Delivery

Diagnosing heart problems before birth ensures your baby gets the most effective treatment he or she needs as early as possible. Our pediatric heart imaging experts use the latest screening technology to diagnose congenital heart defects while babies are still in the womb. If your baby is diagnosed with a heart defect, we offer every resource you need for your pregnancy, your delivery at Duke University Hospital, and to help you prepare for your baby’s treatment before and after birth.

Diagnosing Congenital Heart Defects Before Birth

Congenital heart defects are problems with a baby’s heart structure that can range from simple, easy-to-fix concerns to more complex conditions that require pediatric heart surgery and ongoing care through adulthood. If a heart abnormality is detected during a routine ultrasound scan, or another medical concern is suspected, you will be referred to our fetal cardiology team. Identifying congenital heart defects requires precise screening performed by experts, like those at Duke, who are trained to recognize congenital heart defects as early as the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy.

Our fetal heart experts perform more than 1,000 ultrasound scans each year and use advanced tests to accurately diagnose your baby’s possible heart condition as soon as possible. These noninvasive tests require no radiation or contrast-dye injections and pose no health concerns to you or your baby.

  • Fetal echocardiogram is a more sophisticated version of the ultrasound you normally get during pregnancy. It is performed by a medical expert who is specially trained to use this technology to evaluate the structure and function of a fetal heart.
  • Fetal magnetic resonance imaging, or Fetal MRI, uses radio waves and a computer to create clear, high-resolution images of your baby’s heart structures without the need for X-rays or ionizing radiation.

If a heart defect is found, your pediatric cardiologist will discuss the diagnosis and its implications for your pregnancy and delivery, and recommend a treatment plan for your baby.

  • We may advise that you undergo genetic testing if you have a family history of congenital heart disease, or your baby is identified as having a genetic or chromosomal abnormality.
  • You may be scheduled for regular fetal stress tests and more frequent appointments with your obstetrician, the pediatric cardiologist, and other members of our team, such as a pediatric heart surgeon, as you get closer to your delivery date.
  • You may receive safe medications during your pregnancy that are passed from your bloodstream to your baby’s.
  • During your pregnancy, you may meet other members of our team, including anesthesiologists, nurses, and social workers, as well as other specialists, such as endocrinologists and nutritionists, if and when you need them. We coordinate your care so that the multiple specialists you work with can review test results and images (such as ultrasounds) at the same time.

Fetal Cardiology Care During Pregnancy

We know pregnancy can be stressful when your unborn child has a heart problem. In addition to providing an exceptional level of care, our fetal cardiology team is committed to making this trying time as easy on your family as possible.

  • You will work with a dedicated nurse coordinator. We will coordinate your appointments to reduce your number of visits to our clinics and you get the most benefit from the time you spend with us.
  • Multiple locations. With pregnancy care clinics located throughout the region, we can help limit the amount of time you spend traveling for care.
  • Take a Personalized Tour. Knowing what to expect during and after delivery can make the process feel less scary. We offer tours of our delivery rooms, intensive care nursery (NICU), pediatric cardiac intensive care unit (PCICU), and other facilities.

View Video Tours of Our NICU and PCICU

Planning Your Delivery at Duke

If your baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect before birth, you will deliver at Duke University Hospital, where you will have access to our experts and the latest advances in pediatric care.

  • Level IV NICU and step-down nursery. Depending on the severity of your baby’s condition, you may be scheduled for a cesarean section, and your baby may go directly to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) after delivery. Our NICU is equipped to treat babies with heart issues, as well as those born as early as 32 weeks. Our step-down nursery is for babies who are recovering or need less intensive monitoring and care.
  • Skin-to-skin bonding. This connection between mother and baby is an important and cherished time during the first few days of life. We work to make sure you and your child can safely experience this bonding as much as possible, and as soon as possible after birth.
  • Ronald McDonald House. If you’ll need accommodations for an extended stay in Durham after your baby’s birth, we can help prepare your paperwork and reservations for the nearby Ronald McDonald House before your delivery.
  • We are here for you. Our pediatric heart center can help you and your family coordinate care from childhood through adulthood, so the right treatments are always available.
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