Navigating the journey of parenthood is filled with moments of joy and, sometimes, concerns about your infant’s health. One such concern that often arises in a baby’s first year is infant reflux. This common yet distressing occurrence can leave new parents anxious.
Understanding Infant Reflux
Infant reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux (GER), occurs when a baby’s stomach contents come back up into the esophagus and, sometimes, out of the mouth or nose as vomit. This happens because the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach (lower esophageal sphincter) is not yet fully mature, allowing stomach contents to flow back up quickly.
When Does Reflux Occur?
Infant reflux typically begins within the first month after birth, often peaking at four months of age. Most infants outgrow reflux by the time they reach 12 to 18 months of age. As the muscles in the esophagus and stomach develop and become stronger, they can better prevent the backflow of stomach contents. When a baby starts sitting up and eating solid foods, reflux symptoms tend to decrease or disappear altogether.
The Prevalence of Infant Reflux
Approximately 50% to 70% of infants experience some degree of reflux during their first few months. While it can be distressing for both the baby and parents, it’s essential to remember that reflux is a normal part of development for many infants and that only a small percentage of infants with reflux experience severe or persistent symptoms that may require medical intervention.
- Symptoms of Infant Reflux
- While the most common symptom of infant reflux is spitting up, other signs include:
- Frequent or recurrent vomiting
- Refusal to eat or difficulty eating
- Crying and irritability during or after feedings
- Arching the back during or after feedings
- Weight loss or poor weight gain
- Choking or gagging
- Diagnosing Infant Reflux
If your baby is showing reflux symptoms, your healthcare provider will likely start with a physical exam and questions about the baby’s eating habits and symptoms. In some cases, further testing might be necessary, including lab tests, ultrasound, or a procedure called a pH probe to monitor the acid levels in the baby’s esophagus.
Treatment Options for Infant Reflux
Most babies with reflux do not need treatment, as they are “happy spitters” and continue to feed well and gain weight. However, for more severe cases, several treatment options can alleviate the symptoms:
Feeding changes: Adjusting the way your baby is fed can be helpful. Smaller, more frequent feedings can reduce the amount of food in the stomach and minimise reflux. For bottle-fed infants, switching to a different type of formula, such as a hypoallergenic or thickened one, may be recommended.
Positioning: Keeping your baby upright during and after feedings can help prevent reflux. Holding your baby upright against your shoulder or using an inclined infant seat can reduce the likelihood of stomach contents flowing back into the esophagus.
Burping: Burping your baby frequently during and after feedings can help release air from the stomach and reduce the likelihood of reflux. Gently patting or rubbing your baby’s back in an upright position can facilitate burping.
Elevating the crib or bassinet: Placing the head of your baby’s crib or bassinet on an incline (using a wedge or raising the legs) can help keep the upper body elevated during sleep, reducing the occurrence of reflux during the night.
Trial of hypoallergenic diet: If your baby shows signs of possible food allergies or intolerances, your doctor may recommend a trial of eliminating certain foods from your diet (if breastfeeding) or switching to a hypoallergenic formula. Allergies or intolerances to specific proteins in breast milk or formula can contribute to reflux symptoms.
Medication: In cases where lifestyle modifications are insufficient, your doctor may prescribe age-appropriate medications to manage reflux symptoms.
Surgery: In rare and severe cases of reflux that don’t respond to other treatments, surgical intervention may be considered. Surgical procedures, such as fundoplication, aim to strengthen the lower oesophageal sphincter and prevent stomach acid from refluxing into the esophagus.
Navigating Through Infant Reflux
While infant reflux can be a cause for concern, understanding its causes, symptoms, and treatments can empower parents to manage the situation effectively. Remember that most babies outgrow reflux as they age, often a regular part of their development.
However, if you are ever in doubt or your baby’s symptoms are severe, seek advice from a healthcare professional who can guide you through this phase of your baby’s growth.
For more information, please visit Affinity Health, South Africa’s leading health coverage provider