What is Down syndrome?
Down syndrome is a set of physical and mental traits caused by a gene problem that happens before birth. Children who have Down syndrome tend to have certain features, such as a flat face and a short neck. They also have some degree of intellectual disability. This varies from person to person. But in most cases it is mild to moderate.
Down syndrome is a lifelong condition. But with care and support, children who have Down syndrome can grow up to have healthy, happy, productive lives.
What causes Down syndrome?
Down syndrome is caused by a problem with a baby’s chromosomes. Normally, a person has 46 chromosomes. But most people with Down syndrome have 47 chromosomes. In rare cases, other chromosome problems cause Down syndrome. Having extra or abnormal chromosomes changes the way the brain and body develop.
Experts don’t know the exact cause, but some things increase the chance that you’ll have a baby with Down syndrome. These things are called risk factors.
Your risk of having a baby with Down syndrome is higher if:
- You are older when you get pregnant. Many doctors believe that the risk increases for women age 35 and older.
- You have a brother or sister who has Down syndrome.
- You had another baby with Down syndrome.
If you’ve had a baby with Down syndrome and are planning another pregnancy, you may want to talk to your doctor about genetic counseling.
What are the symptoms?
Children with Down syndrome have a range of symptoms and abilities that can include:
- Distinctive facial features, such as a flat face, small ears, almond-shaped eyes, and a small mouth.
- A short neck and short arms and legs.
- Low muscle tone and loose joints. Muscle tone usually improves by late childhood.
- Intellectual disability.
Many children with Down syndrome are also born with heart, intestine, ear, or breathing problems. These health conditions often lead to other problems, such as airway (respiratory) infections or hearing loss. But most of these problems can be treated.
How is Down syndrome diagnosed?
Your doctor may suggest that you have tests during pregnancy to find out if your baby has Down syndrome. You may decide to have:
- Screening tests, such as an ultrasound or a blood test during your first or second trimester. These can help show if the developing baby (fetus) is at risk for Down syndrome. But these tests sometimes give false-positive or false-negative results.
- Diagnostic tests, such as chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis. These can show if a baby has Down syndrome. You may want to have these tests if you have abnormal results from a screening test or if you are worried about Down syndrome.
Sometimes a baby is diagnosed after birth. A doctor may have a good idea that a baby has Down syndrome based on the way the baby looks and the results of a physical exam. To make sure, the baby’s blood will be tested. It may take 2 to 3 weeks to get the test results.
What kind of care will your child need?
Starting soon after birth, a baby with Down syndrome will be tested for health problems, such as eye, ear, or thyroid problems. The sooner these problems are found, the better they can be managed. Regular doctor visits can help your child stay in good health.
Your doctor will make a treatment plan that meets your growing child’s needs. For example, most children with Down syndrome need speech therapy and physical therapy. Teens and adults with Down syndrome may need occupational therapy to learn job skills and learn how to live on their own. Counseling may help if there are social or emotional issues..
Many professionals will help you and your child through life. But you are vital to your child’s success. To help your child:
- Learn all you can about Down syndrome. This can help you know what to expect and how you can help your child.
- Find out what type of financial help you can get by contacting your state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities.
- Check into resources in your area. For example, many states provide free early-intervention programs for children with Down syndrome up to age 3 to help them get off to a good start.
- Look into school options for your child. Federal law requires public schools to provide services to all children with disabilities who are ages 3 to 21.
Raising a child with Down syndrome has both challenges and rewards. Remember to take time for yourself. And ask for help when you need it. Talking to other parents who are raising children with Down syndrome can be a big help. Ask your doctor or hospital about parent support groups, or contact a group like the National Down Syndrome Congress.
Learning about Down syndrome:
Living with Down syndrome:
Down syndrome is caused by abnormal cell division in early embryo development. Normally, a child inherits 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. Each chromosome carries DNA, called genes, which tell how the brain and body should develop.
But a fetus with Down syndrome has extra or abnormal chromosomes. Having extra genetic material changes the way the brain and body develop. The type of Down syndrome depends on how many cells have the extra or abnormal chromosomes.
Medical experts believe the cell changes most often start in a woman’s egg before or at conception. Less often, the error occurs in sperm at conception. It is not known what causes the cells to divide abnormally. One type of Down syndrome, called translocation-type, may be passed down through families (inherited).
There are more than 50 features of Down syndrome. But not every person with Down syndrome has all the same features or health problems. Some features and problems are common.
Body shape and size
- Short stature (height). A child often grows slowly and is shorter than average as an adult.
- Low muscle tone (hypotonia) throughout the body. Belly muscles with low muscle tone can make the stomach stick out.
- A short, wide neck. The neck may have excess fat and skin.
- Short, stocky arms and legs. Some children also have a wide space between the big toe and second toe.
Face shape and features
- Almond-shaped eyes. The doctor may also notice small spots on the colored part of the eye (iris).
- A flat nasal bridge. The nasal bridge is the area between the nose and eyes.
- Small ears. And they may be set low on the head.
- Irregularly shaped mouth and tongue. The child’s tongue may partly stick out. The roof of the mouth (palate) may be narrow and high with a downward curve.
- Irregular and crooked teeth. Teeth often come in late and not in the same order that other children’s teeth come in.
Some health problems related to Down syndrome are:
- Intellectual disability. Most children with Down syndrome have mild to moderate cognitive disability.
- Heart defects. About half of the children who have Down syndrome are born with a heart defect.
- Hypothyroidism, celiac disease, and eye conditions.
- Respiratory infections, constipation, hearing problems, or dental problems.
- Depression or behavior problems associated with ADHD or autism.
Although every child is different, you may find it helpful to understand some patterns of Down syndrome as your child grows. It also helps to know that most people who have Down syndrome can flourish and live healthy, happy, and productive lives.
Many of the challenges for people with Down syndrome are related to intellectual disability and health problems. Problems may come up at different ages.
Your baby may reach growth and development milestones later than other children do. These may include rolling over, sitting, standing, walking, and talking.
In this age group, health problems and developmental disabilities can lead to behavior problems. For example, a child may develop oppositional defiant disorder in part because he or she does not communicate well or understand others’ expectations.
Puberty starts at about the same ages for teens with Down syndrome as for other teens.
They may face social difficulties and vulnerabilities, such as abuse, injury, and other types of harm. They may also have a hard time handling strong emotions and feelings. Sometimes these struggles can lead to mental health problems, especially depression.
Men with Down syndrome most often are sterile and cannot father children. Many women with Down syndrome can have children, and they usually have early menopause.
What Increases Your Risk
Certain things increase the chance that you will have a baby with Down syndrome. These are called risk factors. Risk factors may be different based on the type of Down syndrome.
Trisomy 21 is the most common type of Down syndrome. People with this type have an extra chromosome (47 instead of 46) in every cell. Risk factors for this type include:
- Being older when you get pregnant. The risk of having a baby with a genetic problem increases as a woman gets older. Many doctors believe that the risk increases for women age 35 and older. This risk keeps rising the older a woman gets.
- Having a previous pregnancy in which the fetus had Down syndrome. Women who have had a pregnancy with trisomy 21 Down syndrome have a 1-in-100 chance of having another child with the condition.footnote 1
This type of Down syndrome is caused by only some cells producing 47 chromosomes. Mosaicism affects up to 3 out of 100 people who have Down syndrome.footnote 2 Risk factors for mosaicism are similar to those for trisomy 21.
Translocation type is the only type of Down syndrome that may be passed through families, but most of the time it happens randomly. A person with this type has 46 chromosomes, but part of one chromosome breaks and then attaches to a different chromosome. Up to 5 out of 100 people with Down syndrome have the translocation type.footnote 2
You may be a carrier of the translocation chromosome if you have:
- A family history of Down syndrome.
- Had other children with this type of Down syndrome.
If you are thinking about becoming pregnant and you’re at risk for having a child with Down syndrome, you may want to see a geneticist or genetic counselor. They can help you understand your risk and work with you on genetic testing.
When should you call your doctor?
Call a doctor immediately if:
- Your baby or very young child with Down syndrome shows signs of:
- Intestinal blockage, such as severe belly pain, vomiting, and possibly swelling of the stomach.
- Heart problems, such as bluish discoloration of the lips and fingers, difficulty breathing, or a sudden change in eating or activity level.
- A person of any age with Down syndrome shows symptoms of dislocated neck bones. This condition often occurs after an injury. Symptoms may include:
- Neck pain.
- Limited neck movement.
- Weakness in the arms and legs.
- Difficulty walking.
- A change in bowel or bladder control.
Call a doctor if a person with Down syndrome:
- Acts differently or stops doing things that he or she used to. These may be a sign of pain or an illness.
- Shows signs of mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Depression may be triggered by a big change or loss, such as the death of a family member or a change in a caregiver.
Who to see
The following health professionals can diagnose and/or treat a person who has Down syndrome:
- Pediatricians, including those who specialize in development and behavior
- Family medicine physicians
- Nurse practitioners
- Physician assistants
Other specialists will be needed, such as:
- A speech-language pathologist.
- A physical therapist.
- An occupational therapist.
- Special education teachers.
Your child may need to see other specialists if he or she has any complications.
Exams and Tests
Testing during pregnancy
There are two types of tests for birth defects: screening and diagnostic. You may decide to have:
- A screening test. This can show the chance that a baby has Down syndrome. It can’t tell you for sure that your baby has it. If the test result is “positive,” it means that your baby is more likely to have Down syndrome. So your doctor may want you to have a diagnostic test to make sure. If the screening test result is “negative,” it means that your baby probably doesn’t have Down syndrome. But it doesn’t guarantee that you will have a normal pregnancy or baby.
- A diagnostic test. This test can show if a baby has Down syndrome.
The decision to have a test for birth defects is personal. You have to think about your age, your chance of passing on a family disease, your need to know about any problems, and what you might do after you have the test results. Your spiritual beliefs and other values also may affect your decision.
To learn more about testing during pregnancy, see the topic Birth Defects Testing.
Diagnosis after birth
If Down syndrome was not diagnosed before your baby was born, doctors can often get a clear sense of whether your child has Down syndrome by how your baby looks and by doing a physical exam. But traits can be subtle in a newborn, depending on the type of Down syndrome that he or she has.
To confirm a diagnosis, a newborn will have a blood sample taken for chromosomal analysis, called a karyotype test.
Waiting for a formal diagnosis can be stressful. Try to focus on caring and bonding with your newborn and getting the help you need. Your doctor or hospital may also be able to refer you to local resources and support groups. For more information, see Treatment Overview.
Another challenge parents may face is finding a way to tell family members and friends about their child’s condition. If you don’t learn that your baby has Down syndrome until after he or she is born, you will have little time to absorb the information before you need to answer questions from excited family and friends who are eager for news.
The best approach may be to simply state the facts, such as, “Our baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome.” If you aren’t ready to talk about your child’s condition beyond that, say so. You may feel able to tell only one or two people. If this is the case, consider asking them to share the news with others. Of course, there is no right or wrong way to tell people. Know that there are resources to help you.
Regular checkups throughout life
Like all children, your child needs well-baby and well-child visits. He or she also needs regular checkups so your doctor can look for early signs of health issues that are common in people who have Down syndrome. The sooner health issues are found, the more easily they can be managed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines about when and how often to check for certain health issues in children who have Down syndrome. The Down Syndrome Medical Interest Group also has health care guidelines for people who have Down syndrome.
It is common to experience a wide range of emotions when your baby is born with Down syndrome. While you have joy from your child’s birth, you will also need to learn about and care for his or her special health care needs. Most families choose to raise their child, while some consider foster care or adoption. Support groups and organizations can assist you in making the best decision for your family.
Treatment for Down syndrome focuses on making sure that your child has regular medical checkups, helping your child develop, watching for early signs of health problems, and finding support. With treatment and support, you can help your child live a happy, healthy life.
Get your child regular medical care
You can help your child stay healthy by scheduling routine checkups. This will help to identify, manage, and monitor any diseases and health problems that people with Down syndrome have a higher chance of developing.
Doctors look for specific problems at various ages, such as cataracts and other eye conditions during a baby’s first year. These checkups are also a good time for you and the doctor to talk about any concerns you have. Many parents have similar concerns as their children grow, including:
- Newborn concerns, such as where to get emotional support and learn about Down syndrome.
- Infant concerns, such as what therapies your child may need and how to prevent colds.
- Early childhood concerns, such as how to teach healthy behaviors, social skills, and diet and exercise.
- Middle and late childhood concerns, such as how to support independence and education, and what team sports your child can play.
- Adolescent and young adult concerns, such as what to expect during puberty and adulthood.
Help your child to develop
Although it may take extra time for your child to learn and master skills, you may be surprised at how much he or she will be able to do. With encouragement, your child can learn important skills. You can help your baby learn to walk, talk, or eat by himself. You can help your child make friends and do well in school. Later you can help him or her learn job skills and maybe live independently.
To learn how to help your child throughout life, see Home Treatment.
Get treatment for health problems
Your child may develop health problems related to Down syndrome, such as ear infections, dental problems, or behavior issues. He or she may need:
- Medicines, such as antibiotics for ear infections and thyroid hormones for an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
- Surgery to correct problems such as heart defects, bowel obstruction, or spinal problems.
- Different types of therapy, such as speech therapy, nutritional advice from a registered dietitian, or counseling for behavior problems.
Find resources and support
Your doctor or local hospital can refer you to community resources to help you learn what to expect and how to care for your baby who has Down syndrome.
You may also want to think about joining a support group. Talking and sharing with other parents of children with Down syndrome can help you manage difficult feelings. It can also help you know what kinds of challenges to expect, as well as help you to discover the joys other parents have experienced with their children. To learn more about support groups, see the Other Places To Get Help section of this topic.
Families of children who have Down syndrome may need other types of resources, such as:
- Financial assistance. Children with Down syndrome have special needs that may create additional expenses for the family. In the United States, some state and federal government services help cover the costs of certain programs. The amount your child receives depends on different things such as your income and your child’s level of disability. To find out about financial assistance in your state, call your state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities.
- Estate planning. Become familiar with tax issues and estate planning to ensure that your child will have proper care and necessary resources available if you die.
- Family counseling. This therapy involves regular sessions with a qualified counselor who has experience working with families who have children with Down syndrome.
It’s also important to take time for yourself. Common frustrations and frequent highs and lows can all lead to exhaustion. Take good care of yourself so you have the energy to enjoy your child and attend to his or her needs. For more information, see the topic Caregiver Tips.
What to think about
There are several controversial treatments (including supplements, surgery, and medicine) for Down syndrome that either have not been proved helpful or have questionable benefit. Some treatments may even cause physical harm or have ethical implications. Talk with your child’s doctor before you try treatments that you and the doctor haven’t yet discussed.
Down syndrome cannot be prevented. There are many things you can do to help your child live a happy and healthy life. For more information, see Treatment Overview.
As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, you play an important role in helping your child reach his or her full potential. You and your child will have challenges and accomplishments.
Babies and young children
Your child will likely take more time than other children to reach certain milestones. But his or her achievements are just as significant and exciting to watch. Be patient, and encourage your young child as he or she learns.
- Walking and other motor development milestones. You can help your baby and young child strengthen muscles through directed play. As your child gets older, you can work with a physical therapist and your doctor to design an exercise program to help your child maintain and increase muscle strength and physical skills.
- Self-feeding. Help your child learn to eat independently by sitting down together at meals. Use gradual steps to teach your child how to eat. Start with allowing your child to eat with his or her fingers and offering thick liquids to drink.
- Dressing. Teach your child how to dress himself or herself by taking extra time to explain and practice.
- Communicating. Simple measures, such as looking at your baby while speaking or showing and naming objects, can help your baby learn to talk.
- Grooming and hygiene. Help your child learn the importance of being clean and looking his or her best. Establish a daily routine for bathing and getting ready. As your child gets older, this will become increasingly important. Gradually add new tasks to the routine, such as putting on deodorant.
Encourage your child to learn, socialize, and be physically active. For example, enroll your child in classes with other children of the same age. Think of ways you can stimulate your child’s thinking skills without making tasks too difficult. But know that it is okay for your child to be challenged and sometimes fail.
Enroll your young child (infant through age 3) in an early-intervention program. These programs have staff who are trained to monitor and encourage your child’s development. Talk with a doctor about programs in your area.
Keep encouraging your child to learn, socialize, and be physically active. Here are some tips:
- Be involved with your child’s education. Most children who have Down syndrome can be included in a regular classroom. Your child may need an adapted curriculum and may sometimes attend special classes.
- Know that your child has a legal right to education. These laws also protect your rights as a parent to be fully informed about or to challenge educational decisions concerning your child.
- Be active with your child. This will help your child feel better, whether or not he or she has weight problems. To learn more, see:
Adolescents and teens
Socially, teens who have Down syndrome have the same needs as everyone else. Most will want to date, socialize, and form intimate relationships. You can help your child develop healthy relationships by teaching appropriate social skills and behavior. Peer acceptance and self-esteem are affected by how well your preteen or teen addresses these issues.
Here are some tips:
- As your child enters puberty, teach proper grooming and hygiene.
- Encourage your child to take part in school and community activities. Teens usually graduate from high school, unless their disabilities are severe. Provide opportunities for your child to form healthy friendships. This is critical for your child’s happiness and sense of belonging.
- Be aware of the social difficulties and vulnerabilities your child faces. Start early to prepare your child for healthy adult relationships and the possibility of an intimate relationship.
- Teach respect for his or her body and the bodies of others.
- Talk openly about your morals and beliefs.
- Provide sex education that is honest and presented in a way that your child can understand. Talk about the reproductive and intimate aspects of sex.
- Discuss birth control methods and safer sex practices to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
During your child’s teen years, you may also want to start planning for your child’s future jobs and living arrangements. Many people who have Down syndrome live independently as adults in group homes or apartments with support services. But most group homes and community centers require a basic level of self-sufficiency, such as being able to eat, dress, and bathe independently. Vocational training helps many young adults learn how to work in many settings, such as stores, restaurants, and hotels.
Most adults who have Down syndrome function well in society. They often have regular jobs, have friends and romantic relationships, and take part in community activities.
An adult with Down syndrome benefits from working outside the home and having social activities. Having an active lifestyle with continued learning makes anyone, including a person with Down syndrome, feel more vibrant and feel that his or her life is meaningful.
Adult day care may be an option. Or the Special Olympics and other activities that emphasize exercise might be options. Encourage an adult’s interests, such as in art or in hobbies such as drawing.
- Cunningham FG, et al. (2010). Prenatal diagnosis and fetal therapy. In Williams Obstetrics, 23rd ed., pp. 287–311. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
- Haldeman-Englert CR, et al. (2012). Specific chromosome disorders in newborns. In CA Gleason, SU Devaskar, eds., Avery’s Diseases of the Newborn, 9th ed., pp. 196–208. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Other Works Consulted
- American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine (2002). A consensus statement on health care transitions for young adults with special health care needs. Pediatrics, 110(6): 1304–1306.
- Bull MJ, et al. (2011). Health supervision for children with down syndrome. Pediatrics, 128(2): 398–406.
- Cohen WI (2009). Down syndrome: Care of the child and family. In WB Carey et al., eds., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 4th ed., pp. 234–245. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- Driscoll DD, Gross SJ (2008). First trimester diagnosis and screening for fetal aneuploidy. Genetics in Medicine, 10(1): 73–75.
- Steingass KJ, et al. (2011). Developmental disabilities grown up: Down syndrome. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 32(7): 548–558.
- Summar K, Lee B (2011). Down syndrome and other abnormalities of chromosome number. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 399–404. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Current as of: December 12, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope MD – Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito MD – Family Medicine & Louis Pellegrino MD – Developmental Pediatrics