Intestinal atresia and stenosis

Nutrition is absorbed by the intestines similar to the way that water is absorbed by a sponge. But some children are born with defects that prevent their intestines from “soaking up” all the nutrition their growing bodies need. This most often happens in the small intestine (small bowel), and very occasionally in the large intestine.

If your child has intestinal atresia, it means that his intestines haven’t formed correctly. There may be areas of blockage that prevent nutrition from flowing through the digestive tract, or some sections may not be connected together.  

With intestinal stenosis, the intestine isn’t completely blocked, but the inside space (lumen) has narrowed so much that it’s difficult for nutrition to move through. Both intestinal atresia and intestinal stenosis are also sometimes referred to as “intestinal obstructions,” and they:

  • are thought to be caused by an inadequate supply of blood to your baby’s intestines during fetal development
  • are usually discovered within a day or two of birth
  • affect boys and girls in equal numbers
  • appear to run in families, although a specific genetic cause hasn’t been discovered yet

Intestinal obstructions can nearly always be removed with surgery, but the procedure carries some risk. During surgery, the surgeon meticulously removes as little of the intestine as absolutely necessary, but sometimes fixing the obstruction means your child is left with not enough of his small intestine to absorb all the nutrition his growing body needs. This condition is called short bowel syndrome (SBS).

Fortunately, there are many treatments for intestinal obstructions, and it is no longer the life-threatening condition it once was.  

The Boston Children’s Hospital approach

At Children’s, we treat children with intestinal atresia and stenosis in our Center for Advanced Intestinal Rehabilitation (CAIR), one of the world's premier programs for treating children with of short bowel syndrome, a complex and often devastating disorder caused by the loss of part of the small bowel.

Our program is staffed by a team of experts with lots of experience in caring for children with intestinal problems and their families. Our specialists include:

  • physicians trained in surgery, gastroenterology and nutrition
  • registered dieticians
  • nurse practitioners
  • nurses
  • pharmacist
  • social worker

Our clinical care is informed by our research. Our researchers have made major contributions to the field: In 2002, Children's doctors performed the world's first serial transverse enteroplasty (STEP) procedure, a surgical technique developed by Tom Jaksic, MD and Heung Bae Kim, MD, which lengthens the bowels of children with short bowel syndrome. Call 617-355-5275 for an appointment.


Intestinal stenosis / atresia: Reviewed by Christopher P. Duggan, MD, MPH
© Children’s Hospital Boston, posted in 2011