Heart surgery for children

Alternative names
Patent ductus arteriosus ligation; Hypoplastic left heart repair; Tetralogy of Fallot repair; Coarctation of the aorta repair; Congenital heart defect corrective surgery; Atrial septal defect repair; Ventricular septal defect repair; Truncus arteriosus repair; Total anomalous pulmonary artery correction; Transposition of great vessels repair; Tricuspid atresia repair; VSD repair; ASD repair; PDA ligation

Surgery to correct or treat birth defects of the heart (congenital heart disease) is required if the defects threaten the child’s well-being or life.


Heart defects come in all types, from minor to major. Defects can occur inside the heart or in the large blood vessels outside the heart. The heart defect may need immediate surgery or may be able to safely wait for months or years. In most cases, the timing of the surgery will depend on how sick the baby is.

The heart defect may be repaired in a single surgical procedure or may require a series of procedures. Surgery may involve opening the heart to repair defects or repairing defects of the blood vessels.

An incision may be made through the breastbone (sternum) and between the lungs (mediastinum) while the child is under general anesthesia. For some heart defect repairs, the incision is made on the side of the chest, between the ribs (thoracotomy) instead of through the breastbone (sternotomy).

It is sometimes necessary to use tubes to re-route the blood through a special pump (heart-lung bypass machine) that adds oxygen to the blood and keeps it warm and moving through the rest of the body while the repair is being done. This machine does the work of the heart and lungs during the operation.

Heart surgery for children requires a specialized team of health care providers:

  • Pediatric heart (cardiovascular) surgeons  
  • Pediatric anesthesiologists  
  • Pediatric heart-lung (cardiopulmonary) bypass pump technologists  
  • Pediatric surgical nurses and technicians  
  • Pediatric intensive care physicians and nurses

Heart surgery requires intensive and extensive monitoring, treatment and coordination by the entire team. Heart surgery for children may take as many as 12 hours in the operating room.

After heart surgery, the child will be moved to the intensive care unit (ICU) to be constantly and closely monitored and treated for several days. During this time the child will have the following:

  • A tube in the airway (endotracheal tube) and a respirator to help with breathing. The child will be kept sleeping (sedated) while on the respirator.  
  • One or more small tubes in a vein (IV line) to give fluids and medications.  
  • A small tube in an artery (arterial line) to measure the blood pressure.  
  • One or two chest tubes to drain air, blood, and fluid from the chest cavity.  
  • A tube through the nose into the stomach (nasogastric tube) to empty the stomach and give medications and/or feedings for several days.  
  • A tube in the bladder to drain and measure the urine for several days.

The child may also have pacemaker wires in the chest in case a pacemaker is needed to regulate heartbeat and rhythm.


Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) ligation

  • Before birth, there is a natural opening between the aorta (the main artery to the body) and the pulmonary artery (the main artery to the lungs) called the ductus arteriosus. This opening usually closes shortly after birth. PDA occurs when this opening fails to close; PDA occurs in about 10% of infants.  
  • PDA is often treated initially with a medication called indomethacin. If the ductus fails to close on its own or with indomethacin, surgery is performed. A small incision is made on the left side of the chest. The ductus is either ligated (tied off) or cut.

Coarctation of the aorta repair

  • Coarctation of the aorta occurs when a segment of the aorta has a very narrow spot, like that in an hourglass. To repair this defect, an incision is made on the left side of the chest.  
  • There are a few different techniques used in this repair. One approach is to remove the narrowed segment of the aorta and stitch the remaining ends together. This can usually be done in older children due to the size of the aorta.  
  • Repair in infants is usually achieved by using a subclavian flap. An incision is made in the narrowed portion of the aorta. A patch is made from a portion of the left subclavian artery (the artery to the arm) to enlarge the diameter of the aorta.

Atrial septal defect (ASD) repair

  • The atrial septum is the wall between the left and right atria (upper chambers) of the heart. There is a natural opening prior to birth that usually closes spontaneously. When the defect fails to close, a child is left with an ASD.  
  • ASDs may possibly be closed in the heart catheterization lab with two small umbrella-shaped “clamshell” devices placed on both the right and left side of the septum. The two devices are attached together, closing the hole in the heart. This procedure is still in the experimental phase, and is performed only in select centers.  
  • Surgical repair is a well-accepted treatment for ASD. The septum is closed using sutures or covered with a patch made of membrane or synthetic material.

Ventricular septal defect (VSD) repair

  • The ventricular septum is the wall between the left and right ventricles (lower chambers) of the heart. A hole in the ventricular septum is called a VSD.  
  • Small defects usually close on their own - 90% by age 8 - and do not require surgery. Larger defects or those causing heart failure require surgical repair with a synthetic patch.

Tetralogy of Fallot repair

  • Tetralogy of Fallot is a complex congenital heart defect with a range of severity that requires surgical correction, typically between 6 months and 2 years of age.  
  • Types of repairs vary related to the specific defects. The Ventricular septal defect is closed as described above. The pulmonary valve is opened and the thickened muscle (stenosis) is removed. A patch may be placed on the right ventricle to improve circulation to the lungs.

Transposition of the great vessels repair

  • The aorta normally comes from the left side of the heart, and the pulmonary artery normally comes from the right side. Transposition of the great vessels occurs when these arteries come from the opposite sides of the heart from where they should.  
  • Transposition of the great vessels requires surgical correction. If possible, this surgery is performed shortly after birth. The most common repair is an arterial switch. The aorta and pulmonary artery are divided. The pulmonary artery is connected to the right ventricle, where it belongs, and the aorta is connected to the left ventricle, where it belongs.

Truncus arteriosus repair

  • Truncus arteriosus is a rare condition that occurs when the aorta and the pulmonary aretery arise from one common trunk. This very complex defect requires a complex surgical repair.  
  • If the baby is very sick, the repair is done in the first few months of life. If the baby is not so sick, surgeons wait to operate until the baby is between 9 and 15 months of age.  
  • The pulmonary arteries are separated from the aortic trunk and any defects are patched. There is always an associated VSD, which is patched. A conduit is then placed between the right ventricle and the pulmonary arteries.

Tricuspid atresia repair

  • Tricuspid atresia is a condition in which the tricuspid valve (the valve between the upper and lower chambers on the right side of the heart) is severely narrowed. This condition severely restricts blood flow from the right side of the heart to the lungs.  
  • Other defects may exist with tricuspid atresia and can aid in the oxygenation of blood and flow to the lungs. A medication called prostaglandin E may be given to maintain a patent ductus arteriosus as an alternate channel to the lungs until corrective surgery can be performed.  
  • A series of shunts and surgeries may be necessary to correct this defect. The goal of this surgery is to join the right atrium or occasionally the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery.

Total anomalous pulmonary venous return (TAPVR) correction

  • TAPVR is a condition in which the pulmonary veins bring oxygenated blood from the lungs back to the right side of the heart, rather than to the left side of the heart, where it should be.  
  • This condition requires surgical correction, the timing of which depends on how sick the baby is. The surgery may be done in the newborn period if the infant has severe symptoms. If not done immediately, it is done in the first six months of life.  
  • TAPVR repair is an open-heart procedure. The pulmonary veins are attached to the left atrium, where they belong, and any abnormal connections are closed.  
  • If a PDA is present, it is tied off.

Hypoplastic left heart repair

  • This is a very severe heart defect that results from a severely underdeveloped heart, and causes death in most affected babies. Only a few cardiac centers have reported any success in treating this defect, but results are slowly getting better with surgical advances. Therefore, parents must decide how aggressively they want the medical team to treat their child, knowing the chances of a good outcome are low.  
  • The best reported results are with a series of 3 heart operations. The first operation is done in the first week of life: a complicated surgery in which a single vessel is formed from the pulmonary artery and aorta to create a blood supply to the lungs and the body.  
  • At about 4-6 months of age, the second operation is performed. A third operation is required a year later.  
  • A heart transplant may be performed to treat this condition, but donor hearts for infants are rare and the procedure can only be performed at a small number of centers.

The type and timing of surgical repair depends on the child’s condition and the type and severity of heart defects.

In general, symptoms that indicate that surgery is needed include the following:

  • Blue or gray skin, lips, and nail beds (cyanosis), meaning there is not enough oxygen in the blood (hypoxia)  
  • Difficulty breathing because the lungs are “wet,” congested, or fluid-filled (congestive heart failure)  
  • Problems with heart rate or rhythm (arrhythmias)  
  • Excessive workload on heart that interferes with breathing, feeding, or sleeping

Risks for any anesthesia include the following:

  • Reactions to medications  
  • Problems breathing

Risks for any surgery include the following:

  • Bleeding  
  • Infection

Additional risks of heart surgery include the following:

  • Blood clots (thrombi)  
  • Air bubbles (air emboli)  
  • Pneumonia  
  • Heartbeat problems (arrhythmias)

Expectations after surgery
The outcome of heart surgery depends on the child’s condition, the type of defect, and the type of surgery. Many children recover completely and lead normal, active lives.


Most children need to stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) for 3 to 7 days and then stay in the hospital for 5 to 14 days. By the time the child is transferred out of the ICU, most of the tubes and wires have been removed and the child is encouraged to resume many of his daily activities.

At the time of discharge, parents are instructed on activity, how to care for the incision, and how to give medications their child may need.

The child needs at least several more weeks at home to recover.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 2, 2012
by Arthur A. Poghosian, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.