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What is an Infant Umbilical Hernia?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2016
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An infant umbilical hernia is a condition caused by a rupture of the muscles in a newborn’s abdomen, specifically in the vicinity of the navel, that allows for the distention of intestinal tissue. Considered harmless, an umbilical hernia will most usually heal on its own without treatment. In cases where the hernia does not heal independently, surgical correction may be necessary. If an infant umbilical hernia remains present and untreated, infection and tissue death may develop, necessitating immediate medical attention.

A diagnosis of umbilical hernia may be made with a simple physical examination. Generally, the hernia is pronounced enough that an accurate assessment may be made of its location with a visual and palpatory examination. Depending on the size and severity of the hernia, additional testing may be performed, especially if complication is suspected.

The area where the umbilical cord passes into a fetus' abdomen while in utero consists of muscular and soft tissues. Following delivery, the internal base to which the cord was attached usually heals without issue. If the base, called the umbilical ring, fails to heal, the muscular tissue may weaken, making it susceptible to rupture and herniation. Tearing of the abdominal muscle allows for intestinal tissue to push through, forming a hernia. Premature newborns are usually considered at greatest risk for developing an infant umbilical hernia.

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Generally, an infant umbilical hernia only becomes fully visible once the belly button has healed. It is not uncommon for the visibility of the hernia to correlate to the positioning and mood of the baby; meaning, the lump formed by the distended intestinal tissue may only present when the baby is in a seated position or is crying. Discoloration or tenderness of the herniated tissue that may or may not be accompanied by fever can be indicative of a complication, such as infection, necessitating immediate medical attention.

Complications associated with an infant umbilical hernia are considered very rare, but do necessitate emergency medical care. In the event the distended intestinal tissue becomes trapped within the torn muscle, blood circulation can become disrupted. Impaired blood flow can deprive the affected tissue of vital nutrients, contributing to the development of infection and tissue death, such as occurs with gangrene. In some cases, an infant umbilical hernia that becomes infected can contribute to abscess formation that results in intestinal blockage.

Most incidents of an infant umbilical hernia that present during the first few months of life are treated with a wait and watch approach. If the infant umbilical hernia fails to heal independently by the child’s fourth or fifth year, surgical correction may be recommended. In some instances, surgery may be performed much earlier if complications develop.

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