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Omphalocele is a birth defect that creates a gap in the muscles and skin where the belly button should be. Abdominal tissue and organs, like the intestines, push through the gap to the outside of the body. The misplaced abdominal tissue and organs are enclosed in a sac.

The omphalocele may be small with just a section of intestines or can be large and involve several abdominal organs. It is often associated with other birth defects.

Normal Anatomy of the Abdominal Organs

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Omphalocele develops before birth. During normal development, the baby’s intestines normally push out into the umbilical cord for a short time. In most babies, the intestines will move back into the abdomen as the baby grows. An omphalocele develops when the intestines do not move back into abdomen. The intestines keep the abdomen from closing properly.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase the risk of this birth defect include maternal use of:

  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) before and through first trimester of pregnancy—medications most often used for the treatment of depression or anxiety
  • Asthma medications—before and through first trimester of pregnancy

Being overweight or obese before pregancy also increases risk.


An omphalocele has a visible defect around the belly button.


Omphalocele may be suspected after a standard prenatal screening test. A fetal ultrasound will allow the doctor to see an omphalocele before birth. After birth, an omphalocele can be diagnosed by its appearance.

Additional imaging tests may be done to help plan treatment.


Talk with the doctor about the best treatment plan for your baby. Treatment may include one or more of the following:


Organs can sometimes be damaged because of the omphalocele to the intestines. There may also be some difficulty with digestion. Your baby may need supportive care. Medications may include:

  • Dextrose and electrolyte solutions for nutrition and hydration
  • Antibiotics if an infection is present or possible

The goal of surgery is to put dislocated tissue back in place and close damaged wall. The type of surgery will depend on the extent of the omphalocele.

Large defects may require several surgeries over a longer period of time.

Treatment for Complications

Treatment may also be needed to treat potential complications such as:

  • Infection
  • Short bowel syndrome—which may cause growth failure because of the intestine’s inability to completely digest or take in nutrients
  • Gastroesophageal reflux—stomach liquids leak up into esophagus
  • Bowel obstruction—especially in babies with a rotated intestine

To help reduce the chance of your baby having an omphalocele:

  • Quit smoking before and during pregnancy.
  • Avoid alcohol during pregnancy.

If you are pregnant, talk to your doctor about replacing or stopping SSRIs or asthma medication.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

March of Dimes


March of Dimes Canada

Public Health Agency of Canada


Facts about omphalocele. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated February 24, 2011. Accessed March 27, 2013.

Omphalocele. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated August 28, 2012. Accessed March 27, 2013.

Omphalocele. PEMSoft at EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed March 27, 2013.

Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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