What is an umbilical hernia in children?

An umbilical hernia is an abnormal bulge, or protrusion, that can be seen or felt over the belly button (the umbilicus). An umbilical hernia develops when a portion of the intestine, along with fat or fluid, bulges through the muscle of the abdominal wall (see illustration).

Umbilical hernias in children result from an opening in the abdominal wall that is present at birth. The bulge in the umbilicus may be present all the time or may only be noticed when the child is crying, coughing, or straining during a bowel movement. It may disappear when the child is quiet.

How common is umbilical hernia in children?

Umbilical hernias occur in 1 of every 6 children, and affect boys and girls equally. Umbilical hernias are more common among African-American children than Caucasian children. In addition, low birth weight and premature infants are more likely to have umbilical hernias.

What causes an umbilical hernia in children?

During a baby's development in the womb, the abdominal organs are formed on the outside of the baby's body and return to the abdominal cavity around the 10th week of gestation. If the muscles of the abdominal wall fail to close around the abdominal organs, an umbilical hernia may form.

Sometimes, the intestines can get trapped in this muscular defect and cause umbilical pain and tenderness. This is called an incarcerated hernia and needs to be evaluated by a medical professional to prevent damage to the intestines. With an incarcerated hernia, the child usually has severe pain and the bulge may be red and firm.