What is gastroesophageal reflux in babies and children?
Gastroesophageal reflux happens when food and stomach acid flow from the stomach back into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. In adults, reflux is often called heartburn or acid reflux. This can also cause pain and swelling in the esophagus (esophagitis).
Reflux is common in babies and children, and it's most often not a sign of a serious problem. Most babies stop having reflux around 1 year of age. A child who continues to have reflux may need treatment.
What causes it?
Gastroesophageal reflux happens because of a problem with the ring of muscle at the end of the esophagus. The ring of muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter. It acts like a one-way valve between the esophagus and the stomach. When your child swallows, the valve lets food pass into the stomach. If the valve is weak, stomach contents can flow back up into the esophagus.
In babies, this problem happens because the digestive tract is still growing. Reflux usually goes away as a baby matures.
What are the symptoms?
It is common for babies to spit up (have reflux) after they eat. Babies with severe gastroesophageal reflux may cry, act fussy, or have trouble eating. They may not sleep well or grow as expected.
An older child or teen may have the same symptoms as an adult. He or she may cough a lot and have a burning feeling in the chest and throat (heartburn). He or she may have a sour or bitter taste in the mouth.
How is it diagnosed?
To find out if a child has gastroesophageal reflux, a doctor will do a physical exam and ask about symptoms. A baby who is healthy and growing may not need any tests. If an older child or teen is having symptoms, the doctor may want to see if medicines help before doing tests.
If a baby is not growing as expected or treatment doesn't help a teen, the doctor may want to do tests to help find the cause of the problem. Common tests include:
- A barium swallow. This is a series of X-rays that shows the esophagus and stomach.
- Endoscopy. This lets the doctor look at the esophagus.
- An esophageal pH test. This measures how much acid is in the esophagus.
How is gastroesophageal reflux treated in babies and children?
Most babies stop having gastroesophageal reflux over time, so the doctor may just suggest that you follow some steps to help reduce the problem until it goes away. For example, it may help to:
- Burp your baby a few times during each feeding.
- Keep your baby upright for 30 minutes after each feeding. Avoid a "car seat position," because sitting can make reflux worse in babies.
- Avoid feeding too much at one time. Give your baby smaller meals more often.
- Thicken your baby's formula with a small amount of rice cereal if your doctor recommends it.
- Keep your baby away from smoky areas.
For older children and teens, it may help to:
- Avoid large meals before exercise.
- Raise the head of your child's bed 6 in. (15 cm) to 8 in. (20 cm). Using extra pillows does not work.
- Have your child stay upright for 2 to 3 hours after eating.
- Serve 5 or 6 small meals instead of 2 or 3 big ones.
- Avoid foods that make your child's symptoms worse. These may include chocolate, mint, alcohol, pepper, spicy foods, high-fat foods, or drinks with caffeine in them, such as tea, coffee, colas, or energy drinks.
- Keep your child away from smoky areas.
If these steps don't work, the doctor may suggest medicine. Medicines that may be used include:
- Antacids, such as Mylanta and Maalox. Antacids neutralize stomach acid and relieve heartburn. You can buy these without a prescription. But they are not usually recommended for long-term use. Be careful when you give your child over-the-counter antacid medicines. Many of these medicines have aspirin in them. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
- Acid reducers that decrease the amount of acid the stomach makes.
- H2 blockers, such as cimetidine (Tagamet) or famotidine (Pepcid). H2 blockers reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. You can buy some of these without a prescription. For stronger doses, you will need a prescription.
- Proton pump inhibitors, such as esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), and omeprazole (Prilosec). You can buy some proton pump inhibitors without a prescription.
Before you give your child any over-the-counter medicine for reflux:
- Talk to your child's doctor.
- Read the label. Do not give a child any product that contains bismuth subsalicylate, such as Pepto-Bismol or Kaopectate. Experts think it may be linked to Reye syndrome, a rare but serious illness.
- Be sure you understand how much and how often to give the medicine to your child. If you are not sure, ask your doctor.
Children with reflux rarely need surgery. It may be an option for babies or children who have severe reflux that causes breathing problems or keeps them from growing.
Current as of: October 6, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Arvydas D. Vanagunas MD - Gastroenterology