Congenital Heart Failure in Infants: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

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Heart Failure in Infants

Though the term ‘heart failure’ may seem to indicate the heart has stopped working, that is not the case. The term simply means that the heart does not work properly. In infants, heart failure can be caused by several factors, one being a congenital heart defect. A congenital heart defect is something the infant was born with and can be treated if it does not heal on its own. Congenital heart failure in infants can also be treated.


There are two general causes of heart failure in infants. One is known as pump failure and the other is known as overcirculation failure. According to the American Heart Society, “About 1 percent of all newborn infants will have some type of structural heart defect.”


The symptoms of heart failure in infants include the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sweating excessively
  • Poor feeding
  • Poor growth
  • Rapid heartbeat

These symptoms can appear to be caused by other things such as respiratory infection, colic or pneumonia. An infant with these symptoms, especially if he or she has a congenital heart defect, should be seen by a physician.


An infant experiencing these symptoms should be examined by a physician. The physician may order an x-ray to be taken of the infant’s chest, may order an EKG to be performed or may give a referral to a specialist, such as a pediatric heart specialist.


The treatment of heart failure will depend upon the cause, as that will dictate how the defect and failure should be repaired.

Heart defects may heal on their own or require surgery to repair. Heart failure due to pump failure may be treated with medication to lower blood pressure or with surgery. Heart failure due to overcirculation may be treated with medication to aid the heart’s pumping function and with supplements to address poor growth. Heart failure to to overcirculation caused by a congenital heart defect may require surgery for repair. Diuretics and afterload reducers may also be given to an infant with an overcirculation problem.

For treatment, the infant may be hospitalized, even when it is the administration of medications being used. This is done only to monitor the child and the medication being given.


Congenital heart failure in infants can be successfully treated in many cases. The American Heart Association adds, “Heart failure can happen to all children. However, it is not necessarily a hopeless condition. Many of the causes can be repaired . . . As newer techniques and medications become available, most children with heart failure should be able to grow and lead active lives.”


Heart Failure in Children and Adolescents. American Heart Association.

Congenital Heart Defects in Children. Mayo Clinic Staff. October 4, 2008.