Early Detection of Heart Defects in Womb Vital, Study Finds

Early Detection of Heart Defects in Womb Vital, Study Finds

Prenatal Diagnosis of Congenital Heart Defects Leads to Better Outcomes for Babies

Baby ultrasound

Being able to diagnose congenital heart defects in babies while they are still in the womb offers numerous advantages for their overall health. New research demonstrates that early detection allows for earlier corrective surgery, leading to improved neurodevelopmental and physical outcomes for infants.

Dr. Joyce Woo, a cardiologist at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, explains, “For infants with critical disease especially, getting surgery a week earlier can make a big difference in the development of the brain and other organs.” This highlights the importance of prenatal diagnosis in optimizing the timing of surgical interventions and ensuring the long-term well-being of affected infants.

The Benefits of Prenatal Diagnosis

Congenital heart defects impact approximately 1% of all live births. The study conducted by Dr. Woo and her team illustrates that earlier diagnosis leads to earlier surgery for both critical and certain noncritical defects. On average, babies diagnosed prenatally underwent surgery one week sooner than those diagnosed after birth. Additionally, infants with noncritical defects received surgery between two and 12 months earlier.

To arrive at these findings, the researchers analyzed the medical records of 1,131 patients aged 9 years and younger at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital between 2015 and 2021. Half of the patients had received a prenatal diagnosis.

Improved Timing and Outcomes

The study reveals a significant difference in the average age at surgery between infants whose congenital heart disease was diagnosed prenatally and those diagnosed after birth. In particular, infants with one of the most common types of noncritical disease, known as atrial septal defects, underwent surgery approximately a year sooner.

Dr. Woo emphasizes, “Our study shows that the best care for kids starts with prenatal diagnosis.” She further adds that more research is necessary to identify and overcome barriers to prenatal diagnosis, such as social obstacles like distance to care, lack of childcare, or the inability to take time off from work.

The Importance of Equitable Access

Dr. Woo’s research underscores the necessity of equitable access to prenatal diagnosis for all pregnant individuals. By ensuring every expectant parent has access to this crucial diagnostic tool, healthcare providers can deliver high-quality care for babies born with cardiac defects and their families.

While prenatal diagnosis offers numerous benefits, there are still barriers that need to be addressed. Understanding and addressing these barriers is vital to provide optimal care for affected infants. Social factors, such as geographic distance to healthcare facilities, logistical challenges in arranging childcare, and limitations in taking time off from work, can hinder access to prenatal diagnosis. By addressing these factors, healthcare professionals can ensure that all families have access to timely and accurate diagnoses, facilitating appropriate interventions and improving outcomes for infants with congenital heart defects.

The study’s findings were published on August 4, 2023, in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.


Early detection of congenital heart defects through prenatal diagnosis plays a crucial role in optimizing the health outcomes of affected infants. By providing a window for timely surgical intervention, prenatal diagnosis enables better neurodevelopmental and physical health in these infants. However, it is essential to address the barriers to equitable access to prenatal diagnosis to ensure that all families can benefit from the advantages of early detection and intervention. Through ongoing research and concerted efforts, healthcare providers can continue to improve the outcomes and well-being of babies born with cardiac defects and their families.

More information:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on congenital heart defects.


Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, news release, Aug. 4, 2023

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