Heart defects in children are fairly common (1 out of every 100), but that doesn't make it any less scary to hear that your child has - or is suspected of having - one. Before you are able to find out how serious the problem is, and what treatments are necessary, your child will likely undergo three common tests to determine the problem. Here's what tests you can expect:


Often referred to as an "EKG," the electrocardiogram measures the electrical activity of your child's heartbeat. This tells the doctor if your child's heartbeat is too fast, too slow, or irregular, and whether or not there are parts of your child's heart that are overworked.

The test is simple and painless. Setting up the test is the longest part, because a technician has to place a number of little stickers, called electrodes, on your child. The electrodes are attached to wires that connect to the EKG machine. Once the machine is turned on, it records the heart's electrical activity and is over in seconds. 


Often called an "echo," an echocardiogram test is also very easy. Since your child has to lay very still, he or she may be sedated, depending on his or her age. If so, the sedation is usually given by a shot and given a chance to work before the technician starts. However, even if your child is fully awake, the test should be painless - the most that your child will feel is a pressure from the technician pressing the scanner on his or her chest.

The test involves the technician putting a sterile, clear gel on your child's upper body and pressing a scanner down in various spots on his or her chest and abdomen in order for the scanner to "read" the heart. The sonic echos produce an actual image that can be seen on the technician's screen.

The test is a lot longer than the EKG because the technician will keep moving the scanner around in order to get the best possible picture of your child's heart. However, the test is often invaluable when it comes to diagnosing heart problems because it can detect almost any defect in the heart's muscular action.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Also called an "MRI," magnetic resonance imaging is another way to get a clear picture of the heart. Instead of using sonic waves to generate a picture of the heart, it uses magnetic waves. The image can be clearer than that of the echocardiogram and is useful if more information is needed about a defect or the blood flow in your child's heart.

Your child has to lay perfectly still for this test as well, so he or she may be sedated during the procedure if he or she isn't old enough to understand. Doctors often like to have a special dye inserted into the patient's bloodstream that helps with the magnetic imaging, but it isn't always done. If dye is used, it will be inserted through a needle in his or her arm.

Your child will be placed on a long, narrow table that is then slid into the MRI machine. The MRI machine itself makes a lot of thumping, grinding, and whirring noises as it works, but your child will not feel anything. If your child is awake, he or she might be a little frightened of the noise and the narrowness of the opening into the MRI. If so, he or she can wear headphones and listen to music to block out the noise. A cloth can be put over your child's eyes so that he or she doesn't panic over being in such a tight space.

Cardiologists often order more than one test if they suspect a heart problem. The goal is to have as much information as possible before making a diagnosis. That way, the best possible treatment plan can be started, without any guesswork. While it can take a while to get the tests performed, try to be patient. Your child's cardiologist wants to make the most informed decisions possible, and the tests will help do just that. For children, cardiology can seem scary, but you can make the experience much less intimidating if you can explain to them what each test entails.