Infants born with complex heart diseases such as single ventricle heart defects may need a Blalock-Taussig shunt (tiny flexible tube) to help send blood from the heart to the lungs for oxygen.
Surgeons at The Heart Center at Children’s Health have decades of experience performing Blalock-Taussig shunt procedures. We’re experts at helping infants who have complex heart defects.
What is a Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure?
Our pediatric heart surgeons place a Blalock-Taussig shunt between blood vessels outside a child’s heart. The shunt helps the heart pump blood to the lungs, where it gets oxygen. The shunt connects an artery from the aorta (the largest blood vessel) to the pulmonary artery (which carries blood to the lungs). The procedure typically takes place within an infant’s first two weeks of life. A shunt can’t grow with a child’s heart, but it helps until a baby can have the additional heart surgeries they need.
What are the benefits of a Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure?
After an infant gets a Blalock-Taussig shunt, blood is able to reach the lungs for oxygen. This oxygen-rich blood then flows through the body, helping your baby grow stronger. The pulmonary arteries also get bigger, which helps with the next heart surgery.
What are the risks of a Blalock-Taussig shunt?
The period after your baby gets a shunt and waits at home for the next surgery is the most critical. Blood clots can form inside the shunt, cutting off blood and oxygen (shunt thrombosis). To lower this risk, we give IV blood thinners immediately after surgery. At home, you will give your baby dissolvable aspirin until the next surgery. We work with you to make sure you’re comfortable caring for your child at home.
What to expect with a Blalock-Taussig shunt
Experts at our Fetal Heart Program often diagnose heart defects that need shunts while a baby is still in the womb. A heart defect might also be detected after birth. If your child needs immediate treatment, we work with your birth hospital to quickly bring your baby to Children’s Health℠ for treatment.
Here, your baby receives care from a dedicated team of pediatric cardiologists, heart surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. Our care team explains the shunt procedure, ensuring that you know what to expect on the day of surgery and afterward.
What to expect before a Blalock-Taussig shunt
At birth, all newborns have an opening between the aorta and the pulmonary artery (ductus arteriosus). This opening should naturally close soon after birth. We give your child IV medicine to keep the hole open. The opening allows some of your child’s blood to reach the lungs and get oxygen. It offers a temporary fix until we can insert the shunt.
What to expect during a Blalock-Taussig shunt
It typically takes about three hours to place a Blalock-Taussig shunt. In rare instances, a child may need a heart-lung bypass machine during the procedure. This machine temporarily takes over the heart's pumping action.
What to expect after a Blalock-Taussig shunt
Your baby recovers in our pediatric cardiac intensive care unit (CICU). We have the region’s most comprehensive pediatric CICU staffed by experienced cardiac doctors and nurses. Depending on the complexity of the heart defect and surgery, you should be able to take your baby home within two weeks.
Infants who get a Blalock-Taussig shunt still have low oxygen levels in the blood. Your child’s skin and nails may have a bluish tint, which is called cyanosis. After future surgeries to improve the circulation of oxygen-rich blood, these symptoms will go away.
We understand that you may be nervous about caring for your baby at home after a major heart procedure. Through our Safe at Home Program, you get the education and support you need to care for your baby at home with confidence and love.
Safe at Home is a program designed to help parents care for their infants as they get stronger at home, between heart shunt surgeries. We equip you with all the technology and tools you need to measure your baby’s oxygen levels and weight. Our team monitors your baby’s health remotely every day, which allows us to detect potential problems fast. You can also call us 24/7 with questions.
What questions should I ask my provider about Blalock-Taussig shunts?
- How many Blalock-Taussig shunt procedures have you performed?
- Are there other treatment options for my child’s heart condition?
- Will my child need more heart surgeries? If so, when?
- Will my child go home with any special equipment after getting a shunt?
- How soon will I be able to see my child after the surgery?
Blalock-Taussig Shunt Doctors and Providers
Frequently Asked Questions
What other procedures might my child need?
Depending on the type of heart defect, a Blalock-Taussig shunt may be the first of two or three heart surgeries a child needs. When an infant is between 3 and 6 months old, they may get a Glenn shunt to replace the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Other procedures may also take place at that time.
A child may also need the Fontan procedure once they’re older than 3 years. After this procedure, oxygen-poor blood can flow from the body to the lungs without first passing through the heart.
How does a Blalock-Taussig shunt affect my child’s development?
Because they have low levels of oxygen in their blood, some infants who need this shunt may grow slower than babies who don’t have heart conditions. After needed surgeries, their oxygen levels should improve significantly, and your child should start catching up.
Who needs a Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure?
Your baby may need a Blalock-Taussig shunt if they have a single ventricle heart defect. This type of congenital heart disease occurs when the lower heart chamber (ventricle) doesn’t fully develop. Sometimes, a heart valve is missing. Without the shunt, blood that’s low in oxygen would circulate throughout a child’s body. Lack of oxygen affects how well organs can work, placing a child at risk for organ damage and heart failure.
Single ventricle heart defects include:
- Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (small left ventricle and aorta, and missing mitral and aortic valves)
- Pulmonary atresia (missing pulmonary valve)
- Tricuspid atresia (missing tricuspid valve)
Children with tetralogy of Fallot may also need a Blalock-Taussig shunt. This condition causes thickened heart muscle, pulmonary stenosis (narrowed pulmonary heart valve), ventricular septal defect (hole in the heart) and a misplaced aorta.