Physical Impairments at Birth

Symptoms and treatments for four conditions.

Congenital Heart Defects

Each year, about eight out of every 1,000 infants are born with a heart defect, according to the American Heart Association. A congenital heart defect is one that is present at birth (as opposed to one that develops later). Congenital heart defects form in the early part of pregnancy as the heart is developing.

Diagnosis: Babies and children with heart defects may not experience any symptoms. Instead, a doctor may detect the defect if he hears an abnormal sound or "murmur" during a routine exam. Most murmurs are harmless; those are called "innocent" or "functional." If a pediatrician detects a murmur, he may recommend further tests to determine if the child has a heart defect. Some children with heart defects have a pale grayish or bluish color to their skin. They may also tire easily and experience symptoms such as shortness of breath and fainting when they exert themselves.

Treatment: Serious heart defects, if left untreated, can cause congestive heart failure. According to the March of Dimes, most heart defects can be corrected, or at least helped, by surgery, medicine, or tools such as artificial valves or pacemakers.


According to the March of Dimes, clubfoot -- a foot and ankle disorder in which the foot turns inward and downward -- is one of the most common birth defects. Clubfoot ranges from mild to severe and can affect one or both feet. One baby in about 735 born in the U.S. each year suffers from severe clubfoot. Boys are twice a likely to be affected as girls. Children with clubfoot aren't in pain and aren't usually bothered by the condition until they begin to walk.

Diagnosis: Clubfoot is usually recognizable during a newborn's examinations. A pediatrician may order an x-ray of the foot to determine if a baby does in fact have a clubfoot.

Treatment: Once clubfoot is diagnosed, treatment begins immediately. Typically, a specialist (often an orthopedic surgeon) manipulates the foot into the correct position and then puts it in a cast to maintain that position. The foot is repositioned and reset in a cast every few weeks until it is in the correct position. If this procedure isn't sufficient, surgery may be required.

Cleft Lip or Cleft Palate

Cleft lip and cleft palate are conditions, present at birth, that affect the upper lip and the hard and soft palate of the mouth. The "cleft" can range from a small notch in the lip to a large groove or separation that affects the roof of the mouth and the nose. Cleft lip and palate usually occur together, but a baby can have a cleft palate without having a cleft lip. Cleft lip/palate occurs in about one in every 1,000 babies (though some races are more prone to it than others), and cleft palate alone occurs in approximately one in every 2,000 babies. Up to 13 percent of babies with cleft palate have other birth defects as well, reports the March of Dimes. For that reason, babies with this condition should be carefully examined by a doctor soon after birth.

Diagnosis: Doctors can diagnosis cleft palate and/or cleft lip by examining a child's mouth, nose, and palate. According to the National Institutes of Health, other symptoms include:

  • Separation of the lip alone
  • Separation of the palate
  • Separation of the lip and palate
  • Varying amounts of nasal distortion
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Nasal regurgitations during bottle feeding
  • Growth retardation
  • Misaligned teeth
  • Poor speech
  • Feeding problems

Treatment: Surgery is required to close a cleft palate and/or lip. The surgery usually takes place within the first year of life. Follow-up with a speech therapist and orthodontist over the course of several years is often needed, but most children can ultimately gain normal appearance, eating, and speech.

Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is a very serious birth defect that affects about one in every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. each year, according to the Spina Bifida Association of America. It results when a baby's spine fails to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. In some cases, the spinal cord and the membrane covering it protrude from the child's back.

Diagnosis: In some cases, spina bifida can be detected during pregnancy. If that is the case, the baby is usually delivered by cesarean section so specialists can be present during the birth. There are three forms of spina bifida: occulta, meningocele, and myelomeningocele. Occulta, the least severe form, is a small defect in one or more of the spine's vertebrae. The spinal cord and nerves are usually okay so the child won't experience any problems. Meningocele, the rarest form, consists of a cyst or lump surrounding the spinal cord and protruding through an opening in the spine. The most severe form of spina bifida is myelomeningocele, in which a cyst affects the membranes around the spinal canal and the nerve roots of the spinal cord as well as the spinal cord itself. Some children with this form of spina bifida are left with some leg paralysis and bladder and bowel problems.

Treatment: Spina bifida occulta doesn't usually require treatment. Meningocele can typically be fixed with surgery without causing paralysis. Myelomeningocele spina bifida will most likely require surgery within 24 to 48 hours of birth. The surgery is designed to help prevent further nerve damage, but it can't reverse the existing damage.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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