Reflux in babies

It’s common for babies to spit up after a feed, sometimes several times during the day. Find out what causes this reflux, how to treat it and when you should go to the doctor.

Reflux is a term used to describe the small amount of milk that babies can sometimes bring up either during or shortly after feeding. It’s not usually anything for parents to be concerned about but, as always, you should consult with your doctor if you have any worries about your baby’s health.

Reflux in infant stages shouldn’t be confused with vomiting in babies – which is where the stomach muscles contract, forcing up a larger amount of milk from baby’s tummy. In cases of reflux, the milk will seem to appear at baby’s mouth without much effort at all. If your baby is vomiting then you should seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Let’s take a look at the possible causes and common symptoms of reflux, and what can be done about it.

What causes baby reflux?

Infantile reflux most commonly occurs simply because baby’s food pipe (esophagus) is still developing. The ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus is still weak, which can allow some of what baby has just drunk, mixed with stomach acid, to ‘leak’ out and make its way back up to baby’s mouth. This is normal and should stop as the ring of muscle strengthens, usually by the time baby is a year old.

Both breastfed and formula-fed babies can get reflux, with at least 40 percent of babies suffering from it temporarily.

However, occasionally reflux can have a more serious cause. Including:

  • Gasto-esophageal reflux disease.
  • A cows’ milk allergy.
  • A blockage in the esophagus, stomach or small intestine.

It’s important to get your child seen by their doctor to rule out any of the more serious possible causes of reflux.

What are the symptoms of reflux in babies?

The baby reflux symptoms can include:

  • Spitting up milk either during or after a feed.
  • Refusing a feed.
  • Baby appearing to gag or choke while feeding.
  • Hiccups, spluttering or coughing.
  • Fussing or crying during feeding time.
  • Frequent ear infections.

If your baby is suffering from reflux frequently, or has any of the following symptoms, then you should seek the advice of your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Regularly vomiting large amounts.
  • Not gaining weight.
  • Distressed before, during or after a feed.
  • Appears to have a sore throat or tummy.

How to treat infant reflux

If, despite having reflux baby is otherwise healthy and gaining weight, then it’s unlikely that their reflux will require treatment. However, small changes to how you feed your baby could make a difference. For example:

  • Burping your baby more often.
  • Offering smaller but more frequent breastmilk or formula feeds.
  • If feeding your baby with a bottle, make sure that the teat hole isn’t too large (causing milk to come out too quickly).
  • Try holding your baby in a more vertical position for feeding and not lying her down for 20-30 minutes after a feed (support her in an upright position instead).

Your doctor might also suggest either using a thicker formula milk or, if a cow’s milk allergy is suspected, using a different formula. If you’re breastfeeding he may recommend eliminating cow’s milk from your own diet.

If your doctor feels that it’s necessary, some medications can be prescribed to help babies with reflux. In very rare cases, surgery to tighten the ring of muscle, or to remove a blockage, may be recommended by your doctor.

Remember that reflux in baby isn’t normally anything to worry about, and should pass on its own before your baby’s first birthday. If reflux symptoms are prolonged, however, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible. In the meantime, have plenty of muslin squares and soft bibs handy to deal with any little milk spits and spillages!

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