Acid Reflux in Babies: Everything You Need to Know
Anyone who has experienced acid reflux knows how quickly it can make your day go south. Characterized by symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, and excess gas, acid reflux is something most of us try to avoid. While typically associated with older adults, around half of babies below three months experience acid reflux at least once a day.
Fortunately, many babies with acid reflux don’t experience much discomfort and tend to grow out of it as they approach 18 months old. However, some little ones experience more severe symptoms than others, signaling the possibility of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Infants with GERD may have trouble gaining weight and are often unable to vocalize their discomfort, leaving parents puzzled about what to do. To make things even more confusing, acid reflux produces different symptoms in babies and children compared to grownups. So, how can you protect your little one from painful reflux symptoms and ensure they stay fit, healthy, and well-fed? To help, we’ve collated a couple of our best tips below.
Why are babies so prone to acid reflux?
Put simply, babies tend to have a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES) — the ring of muscle designed to prevent stomach contents from traveling back up into the esophagus. As babies grow, their LES will strengthen, and they’ll get better at holding down food. If they have GERD, however, their symptoms may persist for over two years, and they may not receive the sustenance they need to grow.
What are the symptoms of GERD?
Typical GERD symptoms include:
- Discomfort during feeding
If your baby frequently cries or wails during feeding, they may be experiencing esophageal irritation associated with GERD.
- Forceful spitting up
Most babies spit up milk during their first months of life. However, forceful or projectile spit-up could indicate GERD, especially if your baby is older than a year. Some infants with GERD spit up yellow or bloody fluid, although this symptom may also indicate a more serious disorder. If your baby experiences extreme and concerning spit-up episodes, it’s worth visiting your doctor for an assessment.
- Refusal to eat
Babies who have experienced acid reflux for several weeks may refuse to feed, particularly if they have difficulty swallowing due to GERD.
- Inability to gain weight
Difficulty putting on weight could be a symptom of GERD, especially when accompanied by excessive vomiting or an inability to feed.
- Bouts of coughing
When acid travels up to the back of the throat, your baby may start to cough. While coughing from time to time is normal, frequent episodes may indicate GERD. If you suspect your baby has GERD, it’s worth addressing the situation as soon as possible. In serious cases, babies can inhale regurgitated food into their windpipes, leading to bacterial pneumonia. Infants with untreated GERD are also more likely to develop respiratory issues, such as asthma.
- Arching of the body
Babies with GERD may arch their bodies to alleviate the painful burning sensations associated with acid reflux. However, it’s worth noting that abnormal arching could also be related to a neurological issue. If you’re concerned, seek a professional diagnosis.
- Disturbed sleep patterns
Babies with GERD often have difficulty sleeping through the night. While nighttime waking is perfectly common (we’ve all been there!), frequent waking and nighttime distress could signal that your baby is experiencing painful reflux symptoms.
- Sour breath and burps
Stomach acid tends to smell sour and is detectable on babies’ breath.
How do doctors diagnose GERD in babies?
Doctors may diagnose GERD based on your baby’s symptoms and medical history. In some cases, however, they may arrange tests to rule out more serious causes. Tests include:
- A neurological evaluation to rule out alternative causes of irritability
- An endoscopy to take a biopsy of the esophageal lining
- Laboratory testing, including blood and urine tests
- An X-ray to assess your baby’s ability to swallow food
What are the treatments for GERD?
If your baby’s acid reflux is relatively mild, you can try a few conservative measures to make mealtimes a little more pleasant.
- Avoid overfeeding
It can be a little tricky to tell when your baby feels full, especially if they take breaks during feeding. As a general rule, stop feeding your baby when they seem to lose interest or get sleepy.
- Try breastfeeding (if possible)
Breastfed babies tend to have fewer issues with reflux compared to those who have formula. However, don’t beat yourself up if breastfeeding is a challenge — your baby will still get the sustenance they need to grow.
- Keep your baby upright after feeding
Keeping your baby in an upright position (e.g., carrying them on your shoulder) will help reduce the severity of reflux. Similarly, burping your baby more often could help to reduce pain and discomfort.
- Thickened formula
Thickening formula could help to treat acid reflux by helping milk stay down.
Are there any medications available for GERD?
If you’ve tried everything and your baby’s GERD isn’t improving, your doctor may recommend medications to lower the amount of acid in your little one’s stomach. However, these treatments are only recommended in severe cases, as they may cause side effects. If you’re struggling with your baby’s reflux, remember that most infants experience a marked improvement after around 18 months old.