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Infant reflux

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jan 24, 2023.

Overview

Infant reflux is when a baby spits up liquid or food. It happens when stomach contents move back up from a baby's stomach into the esophagus. The esophagus is the muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach.

Reflux happens in healthy infants many times a day. As long as your baby is healthy, content and growing well, reflux is not a cause for concern. Sometimes called gastroesophageal reflux (GER), the condition becomes less common as a baby gets older. It's unusual for infant reflux to continue after age 18 months.

In rare cases, infant reflux leads to weight loss or growth that lags behind other children of the same age and sex. These symptoms may indicate a medical problem. These medical problems may include an allergy, a blockage in the digestive system or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a more serious form of GER that causes serious health issues.

How infant reflux occurs

If the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach relaxes when the stomach is full, food might flow up the baby's esophagus. This muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter.

Symptoms

In most cases, infant reflux isn't a cause for concern. It's unusual for stomach contents to have enough acid to irritate the throat or esophagus and cause symptoms.

When to see a doctor

See your baby's health care provider if your baby:

Some of these symptoms may indicate serious but treatable conditions. These include GERD or a blockage in the digestive tract.

Causes

In infants, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and the stomach is not yet fully developed. This muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When the LES is not fully developed, it allows stomach contents to flow back up into the esophagus. Over time, the LES typically matures. It opens when your baby swallows and remains tightly closed at other times, keeping stomach contents where they belong.

Some factors that contribute to infant reflux are common in babies and often can't be avoided. These include lying flat most of the time and being fed an almost completely liquid diet.

Sometimes, infant reflux can be caused by more-serious conditions, such as:

Risk factors

Infant reflux is common. But some things make it more likely that a baby will experience infant reflux. These include:

Complications

Infant reflux usually resolves on its own. It rarely causes problems for babies.

If your baby has a more serious condition such as GERD, your baby's growth may lag behind that of other children. Some research indicates that babies who have frequent episodes of spitting up might be more likely to develop GERD later in childhood.

Diagnosis

Your baby's health care provider will start with a physical exam and ask you questions about your baby's symptoms. If your baby is healthy, growing as expected and seems content, then testing usually isn't needed. In some cases, however, your health care provider might recommend:

Treatment

For most babies, making some changes to feeding will ease infant reflux until it resolves on its own.

Medications

Reflux medications aren't typically used to treat uncomplicated reflux in children. But your child’s health care provider may recommend an acid-blocking medication for several weeks or months. Acid-blocking medications include cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid AC) and omeprazole magnesium (Prilosec). Your child's provider may recommend an acid-blocking medication if your baby:

Surgery

In rare cases, your baby may need surgery. This is only done if your baby is not gaining enough weight or has trouble breathing because of reflux. During the surgery, the LES between the esophagus and the stomach is tightened. This prevents acid from flowing back up into the esophagus.

Lifestyle and home remedies

To minimize reflux:

Keep in mind that infant reflux is usually little cause for concern. Just keep plenty of burp cloths handy as you wait for your baby's reflux to stop.

Preparing for an appointment

You may start by seeing your primary care provider. Or you may be referred immediately to a specialist in children's digestive diseases, called a pediatric gastroenterologist.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. Make a list of:

Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.

For infant reflux, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, such as:

What you can do in the meantime

Avoid doing anything that seems to worsen your baby's symptoms.

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