Growing Group of Women Take Heart in Pregnancy Recommendations

New advice will help women with congenital heart defects navigate pregnancy

(LOS ANGELES, California) – A record number of Americans with congenital heart defects are living to adulthood, and a growing number of them are hoping to become pregnant. There are now nearly 2.5 million people living with congenital heart defect in the U.S., more than half of which are adults. That represents an increase of 63 percent just since 2000.

“In the past, we discouraged women who were born with complex congenital heart defects from having babies because pregnancy was too demanding on the heart,”  said Mary M. Canobbio, RN, MN, FAAN, a nurse at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and lecturer at the UCLA School of Nursing. “But there is now a change in that mindset. We’ve found that under close supervision of a team of experts, successful pregnancy and birth are possible for most of these women.”

Canobbio was chair of the statement writing group that developed the new set of recommendations, giving healthcare providers the guidance they need to help these women have a successful pregnancy. The recommendations were recently published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

“This really represents a shift in thinking and offers new hope for a growing segment of our society,” said Canobbio.

The recommendations suggest women undergo extensive preconception testing and counseling. If doctors determine a woman can safely delivery a baby, the recommendations say, she should work with a team of specialists, including a cardiologist and an obstetrician or gynecologist trained in high-risk pregnancies.

They also recommend that women deliver at a large medical center that has sufficient staff and resources to respond to any medical emergencies that might arise.

After delivery, the recommendations suggest, doctors should closely follow a woman’s heart function for at least six weeks, and in some cases up to six months, to check for any long-term damage that may have occurred as a result of the pregnancy.

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Dr. Brian Koos examines a pregnant patient at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. A record number of women born with complex congenital heart defects are now reaching childbearing age and wishing to become pregnant. Though they were discouraged in the past, new recommendations suggest successful pregnancy is possible under close supervision by a team of specialists.

Mary Canobbio, RN, MN, FAAN, left, counsels a pregnant patient at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center. Canobbio chaired the statement writing group that developed the first set of recommendations that outline the steps healthcare providers should take to help women with complex congenital heart defects have successful pregnancies.

There are now a record 2.5 million people living with congenital heart defects in the U.S., more than half of whom are adults, and a growing number of them are hoping to become pregnant. In the past, pregnancy was discouraged, but new recommendations, co-authored by experts at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, suggest successful pregnancies are possible under close supervision by a team of specialists.

Erica Thomas, 37, poses with her children at their home in Fountain Valley, CA. Though she was initially told she could not have children due a complex heart defect at birth, Thomas was able to have two successful pregnancies. Her case helped inspire new recommendations aimed at allowing other women with congenital heart defects to have babies.

Erica Thomas poses with her newborn moments after giving birth at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in 2014. Thomas is one of a growing number of women with congenital heart defects who were once told they could never have children. Under close supervision of a team of specialists, Thomas has had two successful pregnancies, and new recommendations outline how other women with heart defects can safely deliver babies, as well.

Erica Thomas, 37, plays with her children at their home in Fountain Valley, CA. Since 2000, the number of people living with congenital heart defects has grown to nearly two and a half million, including 1.4 million adults, an increase of 63 percent. Initially told she could not have children, Thomas had two successful pregnancies and helped inspire new recommendations designed to let other women with heart defects have children of their own.

UCLA Health