Umbilical Hernia in Children

Topic Overview

What is an umbilical hernia?

An umbilical hernia happens when intestine, fat, or fluid pushes through a weak spot or hole in your baby’s stomach muscles. This causes a bulge near or in the belly button, or navel. It may look like your child’s belly button is swollen.

Many children have an umbilical hernia at birth. The hernia usually is not painful or dangerous, and it often closes on its own without treatment.

What causes an umbilical hernia?

The ring of muscle and other tissue that forms where blood vessels in the umbilical cord enter a fetus's body is known as the umbilical ring. This ring usually closes before the baby is born. If it does not close, tissue may bulge through the opening, creating an umbilical hernia.

Experts don't know why the hole sometimes doesn't close.

What are the symptoms?

An umbilical hernia is usually seen after the umbilical cord stump falls off, within a few weeks after birth. But some children don’t get a hernia until they are infants or toddlers. Symptoms may include:

  • You may notice a soft bulge under the skin of your child’s belly button.
  • The doctor is able to push part of the bulge back in.
  • The bulge may be easier to see when your child sits or stands upright or strains stomach muscles during normal activities such as crying, coughing, or having a bowel movement.

Umbilical hernias can vary in size. They are rarely bigger than about 1 in. (2.5 cm) across. Most children don't feel pain from the hernia.

Talk to your doctor if your child is vomiting and has signs of infection, such as redness and swelling within the bulge of the hernia.

How is an umbilical hernia diagnosed?

Doctors usually can tell that a child has an umbilical hernia by how the belly looks. If your child has a hernia, your doctor will check its size and shape and see whether the hernia can be pushed back in.

How is it treated?

Umbilical hernias usually close on their own before a baby is 1 year old. If a hernia has not closed by the time your child is 5 years old, your child probably will need surgery to close it.

You may want your child to have surgery before he or she is age 5 if:

  • The hernia is large and has not closed by age 2.
  • There is another problem, such as an infection.
  • The way the hernia looks bothers you or your child.

Do not use folk remedies, such as strapping a coin over the hernia or using a band or a strap to try to make it smaller. These do not help and may make the hernia worse.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about umbilical hernias:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Caring for your child's umbilical hernia:

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  Umbilical hernia: Should my child have surgery?

Symptoms

The main symptom of an umbilical hernia is a soft bulge under the skin of the navel, or umbilicus. An umbilical hernia is usually not painful or harmful.

An umbilical hernia:

  • Is usually present at birth but may not be noticed right away. A hernia usually isn't noticeable until the umbilical cord stump falls off, which usually occurs a few days to a few weeks after birth.
  • May vary in size from less than 0.4 in. (1 cm) to more than 1.6 in. (4.1 cm) across but rarely measures more than 0.8 in. (2 cm) across.
  • Can be pushed back in by the doctor.
  • Usually is most noticeable when your child sits or stands, or is straining during normal activities such as crying, coughing, or having a bowel movement. Typically, it is least visible while your child lies quietly on his or her back.

Some umbilical hernias have a large amount of extra skin over them. These are called proboscoid umbilical hernias. Although they are not dangerous, proboscoid hernias usually are more noticeable than other umbilical hernias because of their unusual appearance.

Complications of umbilical hernias, such as rupture of the hernia or trapping of the intestines in the hernia sac, are rare. But if they occur, you may notice additional symptoms in your child, such as nausea, vomiting, pain, or redness and swelling within the bulge of the hernia.

Exams and Tests

A doctor usually diagnoses an umbilical hernia during a physical exam. During the exam, your doctor will pay close attention to:

  • The size, shape, and appearance of your child's belly, particularly the area around the navel (umbilicus).
  • Whether the hernia can be pushed back (reduced) into the abdomen. With most umbilical hernias, this can be done easily without causing pain.
  • The size of the open umbilical ring.

Your child should be warm, relaxed, and comfortable during the exam. Your doctor may want to evaluate the hernia in various positions and will have you help your child stand, sit, or lie down.

Follow-up appointments are important to help your doctor monitor whether the hernia is closing on its own.

Treatment Overview

Almost all umbilical hernias close on their own without treatment, usually by the time the child is 1 year of age. If an umbilical hernia does not close on its own by age 5, surgical repair usually is needed. For more information, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point. Umbilical hernia: Should my child have surgery?

Types of surgery that may be done include:

  • Umbilical hernia repair. Umbilical hernia repair is the main surgery used for an umbilical hernia that does not correct itself. It is usually an outpatient procedure with low risk. Your child can go home the same day surgery is done. During the procedure, your child is given general anesthesia. A small incision is made just below the navel (umbilicus), and any loops of the intestines and other tissue that have protruded into the hernia sac are pushed back inside the belly. Then the muscles and connective tissues of the umbilical ring are repaired, and the incision is closed, leaving a small scar inside the navel.
  • Surgery to improve the appearance of the navel. Sometimes the navel looks abnormal after surgery. This is more likely to occur if the umbilical hernia was very large or if excess skin was over the hernia (proboscoid hernia). In these cases, additional surgical techniques may be used to help improve how the navel looks.

Problems caused by umbilical hernia surgery are very rare but may include:

  • Infection.
  • Localized swelling caused by the accumulation of fluid at the site of the wound (seroma).
  • Bleeding or blood clots at the site of the wound (hematoma).
  • Recurrence of the hernia.
  • Part of the intestine being injured during surgery.

What to Think About

Surgery to repair an umbilical hernia before a child is 5 years old is usually not necessary. But surgery may be done earlier if:

  • The hernia is large [0.6 in. (1.5 cm) or more across] and has not shown any signs of closing on its own by age 2 years.
  • The child or the parents want the hernia repaired for social, cosmetic, or other reasons. This may be a consideration if the child has a proboscoid hernia. Some children or their parents may find this type of hernia distressing, or the child may play with or irritate the protrusion of skin.
  • Complications, such as a loop of the intestines becoming trapped in the hernia sac (incarceration or strangulation), require emergency surgery.

Home Treatment

Home treatment is not appropriate for an umbilical hernia. Folk remedies, such as strapping a coin over the hernia or using a band or a strap to try to make it smaller, do not help. These remedies may even make the problem worse, such as by causing an infection or by cutting off the blood supply to the tissue inside the hernia, which could lead to emergency surgery.

Your doctor will want to examine your child regularly to see if the hernia has begun to close. Be sure to go to all appointments for these exams and for regular childhood checkups. Also, watch for any signs of complications related to the hernia, such as strangulation, that may require immediate treatment.

After surgery

If surgery is needed to repair an umbilical hernia, home treatment can help your child during recovery.

A child who has just had surgery to repair an umbilical hernia will need pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), for a couple of days or longer. Follow your doctor's instructions on how to care for the wound until it heals, such as keeping the surgical site clean and dry. Continue to watch the incision area as it heals. Immediately report any signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, pain, drainage, or fever.

Be sure to keep all appointments for follow-up exams. Your doctor needs to make sure the area heals properly and that problems do not develop.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Academy of Pediatrics
141 Northwest Point Boulevard
Elk Grove Village, IL  60007-1098
Phone: (847) 434-4000
Fax: (847) 434-8000
E-mail: kidsdocs@aap.org
Web Address: www.aap.org
 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers a variety of educational materials, such as links to publications about parenting and general growth and development. Immunization information, safety and prevention tips, AAP guidelines for various conditions, and links to other organizations are also available.


KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
10140 Centurion Parkway North
Jacksonville, FL  32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Fax: (904) 697-4125
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This Web site is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health, from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This Web site offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly e-mails about your area of interest.


Related Information

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Cowles RA, Stolar CJH (2006). Abdominal wall defects and disorders of the umbilicus. In FD Burg et al., eds., Current Pediatric Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 260–263. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Brandt ML (2008). Pediatric hernias. Surgical Clinics of North America, 88(1): 27–43.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
Last Updated January 5, 2010

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