Congenital heart conditions: After heart surgery

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Read about post-surgery recovery. How long a child spends recovering depends on the severity of the condition he's being treated for, among other factors.

Key points

  • Before discharge, your health-care team will care for the cut on your child’s chest (sternal incision) and other small incisions that may be on the sides of the chest or along the rib cage.
  • Do not put your child on their tummy for at least two weeks. Lift your child under the bottom and around the back of the shoulders, instead of under the armpits.
  • All children have routine follow-up visits until adulthood to detect any problems with the repaired heart.

This page explains how to care for your child after heart surgery.

What happens after surgery?

The cardiologist will tell you all the details of how the surgery went and what you can expect. Your child will be taken to the recovery room.

They will be groggy as the anesthetic wears off. Depending on the type of operation, your child may be attached to a number of machines to support them. They will be removed from the machines when the doctor is satisfied with their condition.

How will your child feel after surgery?

You may be surprised, and perhaps worried, when you see your child after surgery. They will probably be very weak and pale. The nurse can tell you more about their condition and what to expect. How long they spend recovering depends on the severity of the condition they are being treated for and how well the surgery went, among other factors.

How can you help your child feel better?

You can help your child by being by their side when they wake up, being comforting and reassuring, and by speaking to them in a soothing voice. Encourage your child to eat and to be as active as possible, according to direction from the doctor and physiotherapist. This will help speed along recovery.

How long is recovery?

Most children recover in about 5 to 7 days. They are generally back to their usual routines in about 4 to 6 weeks. The cardiologist will tell you how active your child should be during this period. To ensure proper wound healing, your child will probably be advised to avoid strenuous activity.

What can you do to help your child heal?

To get better, children need to sit up, walk, and exercise. Many children will progress well on their own with the above exercises to a level of activity equal to or better than their pre-operative level.

You can help your child by encouraging them to practice the exercises taught to them before surgery by the physiotherapist. You can help prevent respiratory problems in your child by ensuring that your child has their position changed regularly in bed, which improves breathing to different areas of the lungs.

While your child should not lie on their stomach for at least 2 weeks following surgery, in most cases you can safely try lying them on their left or right side, or get them up into a sitting position in a car seat or in your arms. Check with your child’s doctor or nurse to make sure the position is appropriate and safe for your child.

Your child’s nurse will also likely show you how to pick up your child safely and comfortably (that is, by scooping them up from behind the shoulders and underneath their bottom) to avoid placing too much strain on the healing sternum. As your child starts to feel better after surgery, you should gradually re-introduce play activities to build their strength, such as reaching for toys, rolling in bed, and placing weight on his feet as appropriate, based on his age and developmental skill level.

What about follow-up?

The cardiologist will tell you when your child needs to come back for a visit to check on their recovery and overall progress.

Last updated: January 15th 2010