Pediatric Heart Catheterization (Heart Cath)

Cath lab boy with nurse

What is a cardiac catheterization?

Cardiac catheterization, also called a heart cath, is a specialized procedure in which a thin, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into a vein (and/or artery) usually in the groin (leg) and guided into the heart. This helps the doctor find out what kind of heart defect your child may have, the exact place of the defect in his heart and how severe it is. Pediatric cardiologists perform the catheterization and interpret the findings while working with a team of specially trained nurses and technicians.

A heart cath can be performed on children of any age—even newborns immediately after birth. A heart cath is not an operation.


    Is your child having a heart catheterization? Download this guide (en Espanol) to learn about:

    • Getting your child ready
    • What happens at the hospital
    • What to expect after a heart cath
    • Care of the heart cath site
    • When to call your child's cardiologist
    • Glossary of terms related to heart caths

Additional procedures may be performed based on the child's heart condition, such as:

  • Obtain cardiac tissue samples for biopsy
  • Open the atrial septum in congenital (present at birth) heart problems that cause a child to become cyanotic (blue color of the skin, lips and nailbeds due to an insufficient supply of oxygen in the blood)
  • Place occlusive devices to close small holes inside the heart (such as with atrial septal defect or ventricular septal defect), or intentionally block blood flow in a blood vessel (such as with patent ductus arteriosus or collateral vessels)
  • Place stainless steel wire mesh tubes, called stents, in narrowed areas to keep them open
  • A catheter with a balloon at its tip passed into any narrowed area and slowly inflated to try to widen that area
  • Electrophysiology procedures, or tests and treatments related to the electrical system of the heart
  • Insert a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) 

Interventional cardiac catheter procedures 

Advances in interventional cardiac cath have changed the treatment of congenital heart disease greatly during the past 10 years. Once the doctor knows the type of heart condition the child has, a nonsurgical treatment may be performed in the cath lab before the catheters are removed. This type of treatment is called interventional cardiology and may avoid or delay the need for an operation.

Some congenital heart conditions that may be treated in the cath lab using these nonsurgical treatments include patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), pulmonary stenosis, aortic stenosis, recoarctation of the aorta, atrial septal defect (ASD) and ventricular septal defects (VSDs). Children's is also the first pediatric hospital in Georgia to perform the Melody Transcatheter Pulmonary Valve procedure.

At Children’s, when it is determined that a child needs a cardiac catheterization, a child life specialist prepares the patient for what he will see, feel and hear. Depending on the child’s age and developmental stage, preparation may also include discussion and practice of coping strategies such as relaxation. Child life specialists use pictures of the lab, doctor kits and patient dolls. The dolls are used to demonstrate what is about to happen and where the dressing will go.