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Understanding Newborn Heart Screenings

Introducing the pulse oximetry test

Photo: Understanding Newborn Heart Screenings
May 2012

If you're expecting a baby, you should know that a new test will be performed on your baby at the hospital before you and your newborn go home. The state of Indiana now requires a simple, quick and painless way to check for potential heart issues in newborns. Here's what you need to know about the pulse oximetry test, what it screens for and why it's important.

How common are heart defects?

Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 babies are born with a heart defect each year. Many of these defects can be treated and only a fraction are critical.

What does the pulse oximetry test do?

A pulse oximeter is a small sensor (similar to an adhesive bandage) that is taped to your baby's finger and a toe. When the machine is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The sensor is painless and the red light does not get hot. It measures how much oxygen is in the blood and how well the heart is working to get oxygen throughout the body.

How are the tests performed?

The new Indiana law requires that all babies be tested before they leave the hospital. For babies who are born within five weeks of their due date, the law requires that they be tested about 24 hours after birth. It may be performed up to three times before further evaluation becomes necessary. That could include a clinical evaluation by a pediatrician, an echocardiogram (a noninvasive ultrasound of the baby's heart) and perhaps a consultation with a pediatric cardiologist.

What do the test results show?

The test is looking for the seven critical types of heart defects. If the results are "negative" (which means they are within the normal range), it means the test did not show signs of a critical heart defect. Because the test doesn't detect all cases, it's still possible to have a defect with a negative screening result.

If the results are "positive" (out of the normal range), it means the test results showed low levels of oxygen in the baby's blood. This can be a sign of a critical heart defect. It doesn't always mean that the baby has a defect; it just means that more testing is needed.

What can I do?

If your baby passes the pulse oximetry test, there is nothing you need to do. If the hospital recommends further testing, understand that it's because additional information is needed. It doesn't automatically mean something is wrong. That additional data can be gathered quickly so you have answers before you leave the hospital.

For more information, visit www.iuhealth.org/riley.

Dr. Timothy Cordes, Pediatric Cardiologist, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health

Tags: In This Issue, Infant & Baby, Pediatric Health

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