Most women who have congenital heart disease and decide to get pregnant will have a safe pregnancy with minimal risks. However, there are many factors that may need to be considered. During pregnancy, your heart has much more work to do. It has to beat faster and pump more blood to both the mother and the baby. If you are a woman who has congenital heart disease, then this extra stress on your heart may be a concern. Considering these issues before pregnancy and being prepared for potential complications can help you feel more confident and more in control throughout your pregnancy.
The most important thing you can do if you are a woman with congenital heart disease is to talk to both your cardiologist and obstetrician before you get pregnant. This will allow you to understand what risks (if any) are involved for your pregnancy. You can also determine if there are any concerns with your heart that need to be fixed prior to pregnancy—for instance, do you need to alter any medications or have any surgical repairs? Doing all of this before pregnancy will allow you to make sure your heart and your overall health is ready for pregnancy.
Some medications carry a risk for birth defects. These include ACE inhibitors and blood thinners. Therefore, if you are taking these medications and want to have a baby, it is important to talk to your doctor about their safety and potential alternatives that may work for you. However, you should never stop taking any medications without your doctor’s approval.
You may also want to meet with a genetic counselor to review the risks of passing congenital heart disease on to your baby. This risk will vary depending on the cause of the heart disease.
During pregnancy you and your doctors will want to minimize any risks for both you and your baby. You will need to have regular follow-ups with both your obstetrician and cardiologist. It is important that your doctors work together and coordinate your care. Some women will need to be followed by a maternal-fetal medicine specialist (an obstetrician who manages high-risk pregnancies).
Although most women with congenital heart disease have safe pregnancies, symptoms of heart disease can increase, especially during the second and third trimesters when the heart is working much harder. This may mean additional visits to both your cardiologist and obstetrician.
Typically if you have a personal or a family history of congenital heart disease, your obstetrician will offer you a fetal echocardiogram at around 18-20 weeks of pregnancy. This is a specialized ultrasound that allows your doctor to check out the anatomy of your baby’s heart and look for major structural changes. Not all heart defects can be identified through fetal echo though.
It may surprise you to learn that most women with congenital heart disease can have a normal vaginal delivery. You and your doctor will want to discuss pain management options and have a plan in place. You may need additional monitoring both during and after delivery. This can include oxygen monitoring as well as EKGs (electrocardiogram—a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart).
If you have congenital heart disease work with both your obstetrician and cardiologist so that you can have the best outcome possible. As with most chronic medical conditions, planning for your pregnancy will allow you to make informed decisions about what is best for you and your baby.