What goes down, must come up? The facts about reflux in kids

Heartburn and reflux are things we often think of in relation to adults. But the reality is — reflux in kids is common, too.

This won’t come as a surprise to many parents who are often familiar with the constant spitting up of a little one.

In fact, even babies who aren’t impacted by conditions like GERD can experience what’s called “infant reflux.” While this type of reflux in kids can signal an underlying health issue, in most cases it resolves without treatment over time.

Here are five facts to know about reflux in kids:

  1. Reflux in kids may not be acidic.
    As we mentioned above, many healthy infants and kids experience reflux, which is essentially the “spitting up” of milk. This occurs when the contents of the stomach wash back out of the stomach. But it may not actually be acid reflux, because in many cases the stomach of a young child doesn’t contain enough acid to irritate the throat or esophagus like that of an adult would.
  2. Reflux in kids is very common.
    Reflux, also called regurgitation, happens in most infants at one point or another. About half of all babies spit up multiple times a day during the first three months of life, likely because they’re lying flat most of the time and eating a liquid diet. This type of reflux is most common in infants younger than 4 months of age, and it typically goes away as the muscle that controls the movement of food matures, around 18 months old.
  3. Reflux in kids can be a sign of GERD.
    GERD, also known as gastroesophageal reflux, can also occur in kids. If your child spits up frequently and also experiences other symptoms, such as irritability, feeding difficulties, inadequate weight gain or coughing after feeding, it could be due to GERD.
  4. See a doctor for reflux in kids if…
    While in many cases infant reflux is normal, more severe symptoms can indicate an underlying health condition that requires treatment. Talk with your pediatrician if your baby regularly vomits forcefully, spits up green or yellow fluid, spits up blood, refuses food, has blood in the stool, or has difficulty breathing. It’s also a good idea to talk with the doctor if your child begins spitting up at a later age, such as age 6 months or older.
  5. Reflux in kids at an older age may cause a variety of symptoms.
    For children experiencing reflux or GERD, symptoms are usually more severe than with young infants. Symptoms may include heartburn, nausea and vomiting, problems swallowing, and bad breath. If your child has GERD, you may also eventually notice a wearing away of tooth enamel caused by the acid from the stomach.

Finding relief for reflux in kids

The treatment of reflux largely depends on the severity of the condition and the age of the child. Infant reflux often requires no treatment and will resolve itself as a baby’s body develops.

If your infant has GERD, however, treatment can help alleviate the symptoms and ensure your baby develops as normal. Your doctor will likely first recommend you try lifestyle-related remedies to overcome the reflux issue, such as changes to your baby’s sleeping position, more frequent burping, thickened breast milk or formula, changes to bottle or nipple size, and/or more frequent feedings.

If these are unhelpful in resolving GERD symptoms, a doctor may recommend prescription medications, or even surgery in severe cases.

In older children with GERD, lifestyle changes are usually recommended first. These changes may include losing weight, eating smaller meals, avoiding fatty foods, wearing loose-fitting clothing that doesn’t constrict the abdominal area, and sleeping at a slight angle.

If lifestyle changes aren’t helpful, your doctor may prescribe over-the-counter or prescription medications to help alleviate symptoms, or a surgical procedure in the most severe cases.

Jeremy Screws, MD, specializes in pediatric gastroenterology, including conditions such as reflux and GERD in young children. He sees patients in the Kennedy Outpatient Center located at 900 E. Third Street. To learn more or schedule an appointment, call (423) 778-5437.