Reflux is a condition wherein food comes back up into the esophagus from the stomach. This sometimes happens to babies because their gastrointestinal tract is immature and has not fully developed yet, says Dr. Mary Ann Wilkinson, a pediatrician and chief of staff at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital.
In normal eating, muscles at the entrance to the stomach should relax to let food in, then close to keep the food in the stomach. However, in babies, the muscle can be loose and allow food back into the esophagus, she explains.
Common in babies, reflux can start as early as one to four weeks of age and typically resolves by six to 12 months of age, Dr. Wilkinson says.
She advises parents to discuss reflux with a pediatrician if the baby is spitting up so much that he isn’t gaining weight well and/or the baby is in pain.
Stomach acid coming up into the esophagus can give babies heartburn, which can be painful, Dr. Wilkinson says.
“The food and acid comes back up causing pain and crying,” she says. “They might arch their backs and not eat as much to try to reduce the pain.”
Dr. Wilkinson offers some reflux prevention and treatment strategies:
- Avoid overfeeding babies.
- Burp the baby well.
- After feeding, sit the baby upright for 30 to 60 minutes so gravity can help keep the food in the stomach and reduce the chance it will come back up.
- Breastfeeding mothers should abstain from gas-producing and caffeinated foods. These are passed to the baby through the breast milk and can trouble a baby’s digestion.
- Formula-fed babies can be given a special formula that is easier to digest.
- Formula can be thickened with a little rice cereal to make the food heavier and more likely to stay in the stomach.
If these treatments don’t work and the baby doesn’t improve or becomes worse, medication can be used, Dr. Wilkinson says.