Nutrition and heart conditions

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Learn about the important role of nutrition. A heart condition can make it hard for kids to get the nutrition they need and may result in failure to thrive.

Key points

  • Children who are not able to take in enough energy from nutrients can develop a condition called failure to thrive.
  • Children experiencing challenges with feeding and growth will be referred to a dietitian.

This page explains why it is important for children with heart conditions to maintain optimal nutrition.

How can heart conditions affect feeding and growth?

Some heart conditions make it difficult for a child to eat and grow. Children with heart disease may have difficulties taking in enough energy to grow due to an altered or poor appetite, fatigue while feeding, problems with digesting and absorbing nutrients, or side effects from medications. This can result in a condition known as failure to thrive. A child is considered to be "failing to thrive" when they are not growing at the expected rate for their age, or if their weight is disproportionately low compared to their body size.

How does the dietitian evaluate feeding and nutrition problems?

It is important that children facing any of these challenges have the support of a dietitian who can assess nutritional status and growth. Being in less than optimal nutritional status may delay surgery and make recovery challenging. In addition, it can lead to poor brain development and long-term growth delays.

If your child is experiencing challenges with feeding or growth, the nurse or doctor will refer them to a dietitian. The dietitian will do a thorough assessment of your child's growth and feeding pattern. To do this, they may ask you to recall what your child ate over the past 24 hours or record your child’s intake over a couple of days. This will include writing down:

  • what and how much your child ate and drank
  • what foods your child dislikes or has trouble eating
  • family eating routine

For babies, the questions will focus on the frequency and duration of breastfeeding and/or the amount of breast milk or formula your baby consumes each day.

Your child's response to food, breast milk, or formula, details about their bowel movements, and any episodes of vomiting are important pieces of information that the dietitian needs to evaluate your child’s nutritional status.

How does the dietitian address feeding challenges?

The dietitian, together with the rest of your health care team, will recommend some strategies to help improve feeding and growth. This may include changing how you prepare your baby’s feeds or changing the pattern of feeding to improve tolerance. If it seems there is a physical problem that makes it difficult for your child to feed, your health care team may order some tests to get more information about what is causing the problem. The dietitian will then suggest some strategies to address this.

Depending on your child's condition and problem, the dietitian may recommend energy boosting your expressed breast milk, formula and/or food, or organize a feeding tube to help your child get the nutrition they need. The dietitian can also arrange for special diets and the use of special nutritional products to meet your child’s needs.

Breastfeeding a baby with a heart condition

Breastfeeding or giving expressed breast milk can still be an option for your baby with a heart condition. Dietitians and/or lactation consultants can work with you to meet your breastfeeding goals while ensuring your baby receives the nutrients she needs to support optimal growth. This can often be achieved through a combination of feeding methods, such as breastfeeding with supplemental feeds via bottle, lactation aid, and/or feeding tube.

Last updated: January 15th 2010