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The esophagus (food pipe) and trachea (windpipe) are two separate tubes. They run side by side inside the chest. Both of these tubes start at the throat. The food you eat travels down the esophagus into the stomach. The air you breathe travels down the trachea into the lungs. In some babies, these tubes don’t form correctly during pregnancy. This can lead to the problems described below. Your baby might have one or both of these problems.
In normal anatomy, the trachea connects to the lungs. The esophagus connects to the stomach.
With esophageal atresia, the esophagus doesn’t attach to the stomach. Food can’t reach the stomach.
With tracheoesophageal fistula, the trachea and esophagus are connected. Air can go into the stomach, and food can go into the lungs.
With this combination of fistula and atresia, air goes into the stomach and the lungs. Food can’t reach the stomach.
A tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF) is an abnormal opening between the trachea and the esophagus. During pregnancy, the baby’s trachea and esophagus start out as one tube. During the first trimester, they are supposed to separate into two tubes. If the wall of tissue between the trachea and esophagus doesn’t form fully, an opening between the two tubes remains. This is a fistula. When the baby eats, food can pass from the esophagus through the fistula into the trachea. This can cause breathing problems. Symptoms of TEF include coughing and difficulty breathing that worsens when feeding.
Esophageal atresia (EA) occurs when the esophagus doesn’t attach to the stomach; therefore, food can’t get from the esophagus into the stomach. The main symptoms of EA include vomiting and drooling.
If your baby has problems eating or breathing, chokes during feeding, or coughs up a lot of fluid or mucus, he or she may have TEF or EA. Your health care provider will take an X-ray to learn more. This will show if the baby has one or both problems. The X-ray is often done with a feeding tube put into the baby’s esophagus to see if the tube reaches the stomach.
Both of these problems require surgery. Your baby will receive nourishment through an IV (intravenous) line until surgery can be done. A breathing machine may also be needed.
To treat TEF, the opening between the trachea and esophagus is closed during surgery.
To treat EA, the esophagus is connected to the stomach. In some cases, a tube with a weighted tip is put into the esophagus. This helps stretch the tissues to reach the stomach. It make take a few weeks before the esophagus is long enough to reach the stomach. The baby will stay in the neonatal intensive care unit during this time. When the esophagus is long enough, surgery is done to attach it to the stomach.
Treatment of TEF often has a good outcome. Once the fistula is closed, many babies don’t have problems. But in some cases, ongoing breathing problems can occur.
EA can cause more serious problems. If the esophagus must be stretched, your baby may have permanent swallowing problems. Many babies develop GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Also, your baby will have been fed through an IV until after treatment. As a result, your baby may have trouble moving on to breast or bottle feedings. For instance, your baby may have trouble learning how to suckle and breathe at the same time. The doctor can tell you more about how your baby is likely to progress.