Pulse Oximetry Screening and Your Baby

pulse ox baby

Research shows that a simple screening test for newborns can help to uncover a critical congenital heart defect (CCHD). Pulse oximetry screening, also called pulse ox, is an easy and painless way to find serious heart defects.

The recommendation to use pulse oximetry in newborn screening came after a long review process. William Mahle, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at the Children’s Sibley Heart Center, chaired the Secretary of Health and Human Services workgroup to develop the Strategies for Implementing Screening for Critical Congenital Heart Disease.

Sept. 21, 2011, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius recommended that pulse oximetry be added to routine newborn screenings. This improves on the current approach to detect CCHD, which has relied on ultrasound and physical exams.

What is CCHD?
A CCHD is a critical congenital heart defect. CCHDs include:

  • Hypoplastic left heart syndrome
  • Pulmonary atresia
  • Tetralogy of Fallot 
  • Total anomalous pulmonary venous return
  • Transposition of the great arteries
  • Tricuspid atresia
  • Truncus arteriosus

How does pulse oximetry screening work?
A pulse oximeter, or a sensor, is placed on your baby’s right hand and one foot to see how much oxygen is in his blood and his pulse rate. The test is painless and only takes a few minutes.

Why is pulse oximetry screening important?
An infant with a defect does not always show signs at birth. Delayed diagnosis of CCHD can increase the risk injury or death. Screening newborns with pulse oximetry can help diagnose these infants earlier. If the infant is suspected of having a heart defect, he can start the care he needs right away.

Will this hurt my baby?
No. The test is painless.

What does a negative test result mean?
A negative test means the newborn did not show signs of a CCHD. Pulse oximetry screening may not find every case of CCHD.

What does a positive test result mean?
A positive test means the baby has low levels of oxygen in his blood. He will need more testing to find out if he has a CCHD. Children’s has a team of specialists dedicated to diagnosing and treating congenital heart defects.

Additional Resources

More information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)