What is malrotation?

Malrotation means your child’s bowels (intestines) are not in the right position.

When babies are developing, their bowels begin as a short, straight tube. During the first few months of pregnancy, the bowels grow longer. As they grow, the bowels turn inside the belly (abdomen). When they reach the right spot, they attach to the back of the abdomen. This holds them in place.

In babies with malrotation, the bowels don’t turn and attach in the normal way.

Children with malrotation may look and act fine. But it is important to find and treat any problems early so there’s no lasting damage to their bowels.

Call your doctor right away or take your child to our Emergency Department if they vomit soon after each time they feed, and the vomit is dark green or yellow. These may be signs of a serious problem.

  • Problems that need care right away

    Malrotation sometimes leads to conditions that can be life threatening: 

    • Ladd’s bands – These are bands of tissue that may attach the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) to the large intestine (colon). This can block the duodenum and keep food from passing through.
    • Volvulus – In this condition, the bowels twist sharply. The twist can squeeze the blood vessel that carries blood to the bowels. If blood flow is cut off, the bowels can be damaged and the tissue can die.
  • Other conditions that may be present

    Some children born with malrotation may also have: 

    • Heart defects
    • Heterotaxia, where other organs are not in the normal place
    • More than 1 spleen or none at all

Malrotation at Seattle Children’s

We have treated many babies, as well as older children, with malrotation at Seattle Children’s. Our surgeons are experienced at doing the surgeries to correct malrotation and related conditions.

Contact our Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery Department at 206-987-2794 for an appointment, second opinion or more information.

  • The experts you need are here
    • We have all the experts your family needs. Your child’s healthcare team will include specialists in pediatric surgerynutrition and others as needed.
    • Our surgery team is experienced performing procedures needed to move or repair your baby’s bowels. We are skilled at treating more serious problems that sometimes affect babies with this condition, including volvulus.
    • Seattle Children’s has the state’s first Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), the highest level of care. We are skilled and equipped to care for the sickest newborns.
  • Making surgery easier on your child
    • Children differ from adults in how they react to illness, medicine, pain and surgery. They need – and deserve – care designed just for them. That is why our surgeons are all board certified in pediatric surgery.
    • We only do the tests, radiation and surgery that your child needs. We use lower radiation doses than recommended by the American College of Radiology.
    • The anesthesiologists at Seattle Children’s all have extra years of training in how to give children anesthesia safely and effectively. Seattle Children’s is 1 of just 5 hospitals in the nation recognized by ChildKind International for how well we prevent and treat pain in children.
  • Support for your whole family
    • At Seattle Children’s, you have a full team behind you before, during and after surgery. We work together to meet all your child’s health needs. We take time to explain your child’s condition and help you fully understand your treatment options.
    • Our doctors, nurses, child life specialists and social workers help your family through the challenges of this condition. We connect you to community resources and support groups.
    • We work with many children and families from around the Northwest and beyond. We can help with financial counseling, schooling for kids in the family, housing, transportation, interpreter services and spiritual care. Learn about our services for patients and families.

Symptoms of Intestinal Malrotation

Most children with malrotation have symptoms before they are 1 year old. Some children do not have symptoms until they are older. Some people live with malrotation their whole life and never know they have it. Symptoms happen if the bowels get blocked or blood flow is cut off.

Call your doctor right away or bring your child to our Emergency Department if they vomit soon after every feeding, especially vomit that is dark yellow or greenish (because it contains bile).

Your child may: 

  • Be fussy or cry a lot, and nothing seems to help
  • Act tired and have no energy (lethargy)
  • Have problems with pooping (stools), such as not pooping, irregular pooping, diarrhea or bloody poop
  • Have a swollen belly that is tender when touched
  • Have a fast heartbeat and breathing rate
  • Have a fever
  • Look sick

Diagnosing Intestinal Malrotation

Children with malrotation who have no symptoms may never have tests that find the problem. Or it may be found when they have an X-ray or surgery for some other reason. If your child has symptoms, the doctor will: 

  • Ask about your child’s illness.
  • Do a complete exam.
  • Do imaging studies of your child’s bowels.
  • Imaging studies

    The doctor may take a series of X-rays to see where the bowels are and if they are blocked. Most likely your child will have an upper GI (gastrointestinal) series (PDF). Less often, children have a lower GI series (PDF).

    First, we give your child a contrast liquid that shows up on X-ray. Your child may get the liquid: 

    • As a drink
    • Through a tube from their nose to their stomach (nasogastric tube or NG tube)
    • Through a tube placed in your baby’s rectum, if they have the lower GI series

Treating Intestinal Malrotation

Children with symptoms caused by malrotation need surgery. Most children without symptoms also need surgery to prevent serious problems later. A surgeon can explain the risks and benefits and help you decide what is best for your child.

Surgery is needed to: 

  • Move the bowels
  • Clear any blockage
  • Lower the chance of the bowels twisting sharply or cutting off blood supply (volvulus) 

If your child has volvulus, they need surgery right away.

  • Before surgery

    Before surgery, your baby’s doctors will: 

    • Insert a tube through your child’s nose into their stomach. This is called a nasogastric tube or NG tube. The tube empties their stomach.
    • Place an intravenous (IV) line into a vein to give your child fluids, nutrients and medicine to prevent infection (antibiotics). This will be part of your child’s care before, during and after surgery.
  • Surgery to move the bowels

    At the time of surgery, we give your child medicine to make them sleep without pain (general anesthesia).

    The surgeon: 

    • Makes a small cut (incision) above the belly button.
    • Brings the bowels out through this opening.
    • Untwists the bowels.
    • Cuts the Ladd’s bands, if these are present. These are bands of tissue that can block the small bowel.
    • Checks that the bowels look healthy and pink, which shows that blood flow is good.
    • Places the bowels back into the belly so they are not likely to twist in the future.
    • Removes your child’s appendix. The new placement of the bowels affects the location of your child’s appendix. If your child ever got appendicitis, it might be hard to diagnose. So your surgeon takes out your child’s appendix. It has no clear function, and your child can live normally without it.
    • Closes the incision with stitches. 

    If it is not clear that the bowels have good blood flow, your child may need another surgery within 48 hours. If part of the bowels does not look healthy, the surgeon may remove that part.

  • Surgery to remove a segment

    Part of the bowels may be damaged, or the tissue may die if it is not getting good blood flow. The surgeon will remove any damaged part while keeping as much of the bowels as possible. After making the cut in your child’s belly, the surgeon: 

    • Cuts out the damaged section.
    • Connects the remaining parts of the bowels with stitches, if they look healthy. This is called primary anastomosis (pronounced an-as-toe-MOE-sis).
    • Sews closed the cut in the belly wall.

    If the rest of the bowels do not look healthy or a large part was removed, surgeons might not connect the 2 remaining parts. Instead, they may make an ostomy.

  • Ostomy

    Instead of connecting the remaining parts of the bowels, the surgeon makes 2 small openings (stoma) in your child’s belly wall. This procedure is called an ostomy (pronounced OST-uh-mee). The surgeon: 

    • Sews the upper end of the bowels to 1 opening in the belly wall. This lets bowel movements come out into a plastic pouch on the outside of your child’s body.
    • Sews the lower end of the bowels to the other opening. This opening lets out normal mucus made in the bowels. 

    If your child needs this procedure, we will teach you how to care for the openings.

    In most cases, an ostomy is temporary. Later, the surgeon does another procedure to attach the ends of the bowels to each other and to close the openings in your baby’s belly. Usually this is about 6 to 8 weeks later, when the bowels are healthier.

    If surgeons had to remove a large segment of your child’s bowels, the ostomy might be permanent. This is not common.

    If your child had a large segment of their bowels removed, the rest may not absorb nutrients from food properly. This is called short bowel syndrome. It can cause serious problems with growth and development. Our team will keep as much of your child’s bowels as possible to try to prevent this.

  • After surgery

    After surgery, your child will be in the recovery room for about an hour and then go to a hospital room. Some children may need to stay in our pediatric intensive care unit (ICU) or Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), where they get the high level of care they need. We have the state’s first Level IV NICU. When your baby is ready, they move to a regular hospital room. 

    • We will give your child pain medicine to make them comfortable.
    • If your child is at risk for infection, we will give them antibiotics.
    • Right after surgery, your child will get all their nutrition through a tube that goes into a vein. This is called an intravenous (IV) line. This is because it takes a few days for the bowels to work again after surgery.
    • After your child starts passing gas, doctors will know the bowels are working again and feedings may be started.
    • Some babies may have to get feedings through a tube that goes into the stomach from their nose (nasogastric tube or NG tube) or mouth (orogastric tube or OG tube). 

    We keep a careful watch on your baby to be sure they are growing well. Most children who have surgery for malrotation stay in the hospital about 1 week. It depends on how quickly their bowels heal from surgery and how soon your child can start eating again.

  • Follow-up care

    The surgeon will stay closely involved in your child’s care while they are in the hospital. Your child will have a follow-up visit 2 to 3 weeks after the surgery.

    The surgeon will check that: 

    • The incision is healing.
    • Your child is gaining weight and growing well.
    • There are no other health issues.

Contact Us

Contact our Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgery Department at 206-987-2794 for an appointment, second opinion or more information.

To make an appointment, you can call us directly or get a referral from your child’s primary care provider. We encourage you to coordinate with your child’s primary care provider when coming to Seattle Children’s.

Providers, see how to refer a patient.