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Congenital problems

Congenital means 'present at birth' and includes hereditary conditions, and abnormalities arising when the baby is growing in the womb, or through complications in labour.

Two organisations that can provide information on congenital problems are:

• Contact-a-Familyhelping families who care for children with disabilies or special needs.
Telephone: 0207 383 3555

• Birth Defects Foundation

Its telephone 'Here to Help' service (08700 707020) can provide information on conditions, relevant addresses, background on medical terms, contacts and much more.

Spina bifida

With spina bifida, a baby is born with a raw swelling over part of the spine. This can lead to partial or complete paralysis of the legs, loss of sensation below the level of the spina bifida and problems with bladder control. There may also be retention of water on the brain (hydrocephalus). The raw swelling will be closed surgically in a specialist unit if possible. All pregnant women, and women planning a pregnancy, have been encouraged to take folic acid supplements in the prenatal period and in the early months of pregnancy to reduces the risk.

Umbilical hernias

Umbilical hernias result from a weakness around the navel, which means that part of the digestive system is protruding outside the cavity of the abdomen. Most congenital umbilical hernias, that is those around the navel, will resolve themselves and will only need surgery if they do not.

Sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease is an inherited condition found in people of West African or African-Caribbean descent. The red blood cells containing haemoglobin (the substance that carries oxygen around the body) break down more quickly than usual. This leads to anaemia and painful blockages of blood vessels in the limbs or abdomen. Episodes may last a few days and should be treated with painkillers such as paracetemol.

Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that causes body tissue to produce abnormally thick mucus, for example, in the air passages, which as a result become blocked and susceptible to infection. Other affected areas are the bowel and the pancreas gland. Children with cystic fibrosis cannot digest food properly and will have foul-smelling bowel movements and sometimes constipation. They will be undernourished and small for their age.

This condition affects approximately one child in 3,000 in the UK. There is no cure, but if diagnosed early, damage to the lungs can be prevented.

Children with cystic fibrosis are very prone to chest infections that are likely to require antibiotics. Chest physiotherapy is also necessary to dislodge the thick phlegm and parents usually have to do this daily.

Coeliac disease

This affects about 2% of the UK population and refers to a condition in which the intestine is badly affected by gluten, a protein found in wheat. Children with this disease may have chronic diarrhoea, or loose stools that are pale, fatty and difficult to flush away. The child will not gain weight as expected. The diagnosis is made on a blood test.

Once diagnosed a child will have to exclude gluten from his or her diet, that is, any food made from flour. Thankfully, there is now a huge range of suitable substitute foods available on prescription from your GP. When gluten is excluded from the diet, bowel motions return to normal and the child will gain weight, but the sensitivity to gluten will remain for life.

Club foot

Club footalso known as talipesrefers to a foot that curves inwards or outwards. Your baby will be checked for this condition after the birth. It is more likely in babies born in the breech position. In most cases the foot can be manipulated into the correct position with no treatment, or very simple treatment, needed. However, in more severe cases, an operation may be needed.

Cleft palate

A cleft lip may be linked to a cleft palate, which may make it difficult for your baby to feed. Support is available as soon as your baby is born to help you deal with all aspects of this condition and plastic surgery to treat it will be offered early on in your baby's life. To find out more contact CLAPA (the Cleft Lip and Palate Association) on 0207 431 0033.

Congenital dislocation of the hip

Babies are checked at birth and at the eight-week screen for dislocation of the hip. If the condition is missed it can cause problems with walking in later life. Babies with dislocation of the hip may have to wear a special splint for a while. However, most cope without too much problem and only a very few need an operation. This condition is more common in girls and in babies born in the breech position.

Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy results from damage to parts of the brain that control the body's movement. This may occur before birth, during birth, or during the first two years of life, and may be slight or severe. In many cases doctors cannot establish the exact cause. The damage may not always be evident at birth and may only become obvious as the baby grows. Some of the tests at the eight-week screen will check for cerebral palsy.

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