Babies: Gastroesophageal reflux

Concerning fussy nursers and nursing strikes, I thought that was what I was going through with my now eight month old. She would often scream when I tried to nurse, but would not take a bottle or solids. Her doctor just diagnosed gastroesophageal reflux. She is nursing great now. She gained 12 ounces the first week on meds to control reflux. Can you explain this condition?


Debbi Donovan

Debbi Donovan is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, as well as a retired La Leche League Leader. For more than a decade, Debbi... Read more

Thank you for helping to remind us that gastroesophageal reflux (GER) can play a part in a baby's colicky behavior and refusal of the breast. I'm glad to hear that your baby is doing so well since on medication for GER.

A small amount of reflux, or regurgitation of stomach acids into the esophagus, is very common in infants. In the majority of cases, GER is caused by the baby's immature intestinal tract.

Testing can be invasive and inconclusive and is often avoided, instead relying on the parent's documentation of colicky episodes. "Many infants who have little or no clinical symptoms of reflux experience reflux of some barium into the esophagus." (Hillemeier AC: Gastroesophageal Reflux. Ped Clin N Amer 1996;43:197)

Breastfed babies experience less GER. A 1996 study, "Gastroesophageal reflux and cow's milk allergy in infants: a prospective study" (Iacono G et al., J Allergy Clin Immunology (1996) 97:3 822-827) found that 41.8% of cases of gastroesophageal reflux (GER) was associated with, and probably caused by, an allergy to cow's milk. It was concluded that all babies who present with GER should be screened for cow's milk allergy.

Smoking has also been linked to gastroesophageal reflux. In the July 1996 issue of the Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Alaswad, Toubas, and Grunow, shared their research, Environmental tobacco smoke exposure and GER in infants with apparent life-threatening events. Infants who experienced a life-threatening event were studied to see if second-hand cigarette smoke may have played a part in GER. A strong correlation was found between elevated esophageal pH and exposure to second-hand smoke. The more cigarettes smoked, the greater chance of GER. The authors of this study concluded that environmental exposure to smoke plays a significant contributing role in the development of GER in infants.

If your baby experiences frequent or forceful vomiting, chronic coughing or wheezing, difficulty breathing, inconsolable crying, painful and persistent night waking, breast refusal or slow weight gain and growth, it is very important that he be properly evaluated by his Health Care Provider to rule out any underlying medical condition, including GER.

You may find it helpful to feed your baby with reflux more frequently, so the feeds will be smaller and more manageable for your baby. Baby carrying in a sling can also work wonders for babies with GER. The more upright position during and following a feed seems helpful for their digestion. There is also less crying in babies that are carried and this is very important to the baby with GER because babies experience more reflux when crying. Mylicon may be recommended by your baby's Health Care Provider to break down or lessen intestinal gas, while other medications may be used to help decrease or neutralize stomach acid, or improve intestinal coordination.

The good news is that almost all babies outgrow this condition. Most babies at six months of age are experiencing significantly less difficulty with reflux, and by 18 months only 10 percent of babies still are experiencing these problems. Best wishes!

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