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Gastroesophageal Reflux in Infants

(Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease [GERD])

By

William J. Cochran

, MD, Geisinger Clinic

Last full review/revision Aug 2021| Content last modified Aug 2021
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Gastroesophageal reflux is the movement of gastric contents into the esophagus. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is reflux that causes complications such as irritability, respiratory problems, and poor growth. Diagnosis is often made clinically, including by trial of dietary change, but some infants require an upper gastrointestinal series, use of esophageal pH and impedance probes, and sometimes endoscopy. Gastroesophageal reflux requires only reassurance. Treatment of GERD begins with modification of feeding and after-feeding positioning; some infants require acid-suppressing drugs such as proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers. Antireflux surgery is rarely needed.

Gastroesophageal reflux occurs in almost all infants, manifesting as wet burps after feeding. Incidence of gastroesophageal reflux increases between 2 months and 6 months of age (likely due to an increased volume of liquid at each feeding) and then starts to decrease after 7 months. Gastroesophageal reflux resolves in about 85% of infants by 12 months and in 95% by 18 months. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), that is, reflux that causes complications, is much less common.

Etiology of Reflux in Infants

  • The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) fails to prevent reflux of gastric contents into the esophagus.

LES pressure may transiently decrease spontaneously (inappropriate relaxation), which is the most common cause of reflux, or after exposure to cigarette smoke and caffeine (in beverages or breast milk). The esophagus is normally at a negative pressure, whereas the stomach is at a positive pressure. The pressure in the LES has to exceed that pressure gradient to prevent reflux. Factors that increase this gradient or decrease the pressure in the LES predispose to reflux. The pressure gradient may increase in infants who are overfed (excessive food causes a higher gastric pressure) and in infants who have chronic lung disease (lower intrathoracic pressure increases the gradient across the LES) and by positioning (eg, sitting increases gastric pressure).

Other causes include food allergies Food Allergy Food allergy is an exaggerated immune response to dietary components, usually proteins. Manifestations vary widely and can include atopic dermatitis, gastrointestinal or respiratory symptoms... read more , most commonly cow's milk allergy. A less common cause is gastroparesis (delayed emptying of the stomach), in which food remains in the stomach for a longer period of time, maintaining a high gastric pressure that predisposes to reflux. Infrequently, an infant can have recurrent emesis that mimics GERD because of a metabolic disease (eg, urea cycle defects Urea Cycle Disorders Urea cycle disorders are characterized by hyperammonemia under catabolic or protein-loading conditions. There are many types of urea cycle and related disorders (see the table) as well as many... read more , galactosemia Galactosemia Galactosemia is a carbohydrate metabolism disorder caused by inherited deficiencies in enzymes that convert galactose to glucose. Symptoms and signs include hepatic and renal dysfunction, cognitive... read more , hereditary fructose intolerance Fructose Metabolism Disorders Deficiency of enzymes that metabolize fructose may be asymptomatic or cause hypoglycemia. Fructose is a monosaccharide that is present in high concentrations in fruit and honey and is a constituent... read more ) or an anatomic abnormality (such as pyloric stenosis Hypertrophic Pyloric Stenosis Hypertrophic pyloric stenosis is obstruction of the pyloric lumen due to pyloric muscular hypertrophy. Diagnosis is by abdominal ultrasonography. Treatment is surgical. Hypertrophic pyloric... read more or malrotation) Malrotation of the Bowel Malrotation of the bowel is failure of the bowel to assume its normal place in the abdomen during intrauterine development. Diagnosis is by abdominal x-ray. Treatment is surgical repair. (See... read more Malrotation of the Bowel .

Complications

Complications of GERD are due mainly to irritation caused by stomach acid and to caloric deficit caused by the frequent regurgitation of food.

Stomach acid may irritate the esophagus, larynx, and, if aspiration occurs, the airways. Esophageal irritation may decrease food intake as infants learn to avoid reflux by eating less. Significant esophageal irritation (esophagitis Eosinophilic Esophagitis Eosinophilic esophagitis is a chronic immune-mediated disease of the esophagus resulting in eosinophil-predominant inflammation of the esophagus; it can cause reflux-like symptoms, dysphagia... read more Eosinophilic Esophagitis ) may cause mild, chronic blood loss and esophageal stricture. Laryngeal and airway irritation may cause respiratory symptoms. Aspiration may cause recurrent pneumonia.

Symptoms and Signs of Reflux in Infants

The main symptom of gastroesophageal reflux is

  • Frequent regurgitation (spitting up)

Caregivers often refer to this spitting up as vomiting, but it is not actually vomiting because it is not due to gastric peristaltic contractions. The spit-ups appear effortless and not particularly forceful.

Diagnosis of Reflux in Infants

  • Clinical evaluation

  • Typically upper gastrointestinal (GI) series

  • Sometimes esophageal pH measurement or endoscopy

Infants who have effortless spit-ups, who are growing normally, and who have no other symptoms (sometimes referred to as "happy spitters") have gastroesophageal reflux and require no further evaluation.

Because spitting up is so common, many infants with serious disorders also have a history of spitting up. Red flags that infants have something other than reflux include forceful emesis, abdominal distention, emesis containing blood or bile, fever, poor weight gain Failure to Thrive (FTT) Failure to thrive is weight consistently below the 3rd to 5th percentile for age and sex, progressive decrease in weight to below the 3rd to 5th percentile, or a decrease in 2 major growth percentiles... read more , blood in the stools, persistent diarrhea Diarrhea in Children Diarrhea is frequent loose or watery bowel movements that deviate from a child’s normal pattern. Diarrhea may be accompanied by anorexia, vomiting, acute weight loss, abdominal pain, fever,... read more , and abnormal development or neurologic manifestations (eg, bulging fontanelle, seizures). Infants with such findings require prompt evaluation. Bilious emesis Nausea and Vomiting in Infants and Children Nausea is the sensation of impending emesis and is frequently accompanied by autonomic changes, such as increased heart rate and salivation. Nausea and vomiting typically occur in sequence;... read more in an infant is a medical emergency because it may be a symptom of malrotation of the intestines Diagnosis Malrotation of the bowel is failure of the bowel to assume its normal place in the abdomen during intrauterine development. Diagnosis is by abdominal x-ray. Treatment is surgical repair. (See... read more Diagnosis and midgut volvulus Intestinal Obstruction Intestinal obstruction is significant mechanical impairment or complete arrest of the passage of contents through the intestine due to pathology that causes blockage of the bowel. Symptoms include... read more Intestinal Obstruction .

Irritability has many causes, including serious infections and neurologic disorders, which should be ruled out before concluding that the irritability is caused by GERD.

Infants who have symptoms consistent with GERD and no severe complications may be given a therapeutic trial of medical therapy for GERD; improvement or elimination of symptoms suggests GERD is the diagnosis and that other testing is unnecessary. Infants can also be given an extensively hydrolyzed (hypoallergenic) formula for 2 to 4 weeks to see whether the symptoms are caused by a food allergy.

Infants who fail to respond to a therapeutic trial, or who present with signs of complications of GERD, may require further evaluation. Typically, an upper GI series is the first test; it may help diagnose reflux and also identify any anatomic GI disorders that cause regurgitation. Finding barium reflux into the mid or upper esophagus is much more significant than seeing reflux into only the distal esophagus. For infants with regurgitation hours after eating, who may have gastroparesis, a liquid gastric emptying scan may be appropriate.

If the diagnosis remains unclear or there is still a question of whether reflux is actually the cause of symptoms such as coughing or wheezing, a pediatric gastroenterologist may do tests using esophageal pH or impedance probes (see Ambulatory pH Monitoring Ambulatory pH Monitoring Ambulatory 24-hour esophageal pH monitoring with or without intraluminal impedance testing is currently the most common test for quantifying gastroesophageal reflux (1). The principal indications... read more ). Caregivers record the occurrence of symptoms (manually or by using an event marker on the probe); the symptoms are then correlated with reflux events detected by the probe. A pH probe can also assess the effectiveness of acid-suppression therapy. An impedance probe has the ability to detect nonacid reflux as well as acid reflux.

Upper GI endoscopy and biopsy are sometimes done to help diagnose infection or food allergy and detect and quantify the degree of esophagitis. Laryngotracheobronchoscopy may be done to detect laryngeal inflammation or vocal cord nodules. Previously, the presence of lipid-laden macrophages and/or pepsin in bronchial aspirates was thought to help diagnose reflux and aspiration. However, lipid-laden macrophages are now recognized to be of no benefit, and pepsin measurement has low sensitivity and specificity.

Treatment of Reflux in Infants

  • Modifying feedings

  • Positioning

  • Sometimes acid-suppressive therapy

  • Rarely surgery

For infants with gastroesophageal reflux, the only necessary treatment is to reassure caregivers that the symptoms are normal and will be outgrown. Infants with GERD require treatment, typically beginning with conservative measures.

Modifying feedings

  • Thickened feedings

  • Smaller, more frequent feedings

  • Sometimes hypoallergenic formula

  • For breastfed infants, changing the mother's diet

As a first step, most clinicians recommend thickening feedings, which can be done by adding 10 to 15 mL (1/2 to 1 tbsp) of rice cereal to 30 mL of formula. Thickened formula seems to reflux less, particularly when the infant is kept in an upright position for 20 to 30 minutes after feeding. Thickened formula may not flow through the nipple properly, so the nipple orifice may need to be cross-cut to allow adequate flow.

Providing smaller, more frequent feedings helps keep the pressure in the stomach down and minimizes the amount of reflux. However, it is important to maintain an appropriate total amount of formula per 24-hour period to ensure adequate growth. In addition, burping the infant after every 1 to 2 oz can help decrease gastric pressure by expelling the air the infant is swallowing.

If conservative measures fail, a hypoallergenic formula should be used in formula-fed infants for 2 to 4 weeks because these infants may have a food allergy. Hypoallergenic formula can even be helpful for infants who do not have a food allergy by improving gastric emptying. Cow's milk allergy can occur in breastfed infants and can be a cause of GERD. A trial of placing the mother on a strict cow's milk protein–free diet for several weeks may be helpful. All children should be kept away from caffeine and tobacco smoke.

Positioning

After feeding, infants are kept in an upright, nonseated position for 20 to 30 minutes (sitting, as in an infant seat, increases gastric pressure and is not helpful).

For sleeping, left lateral positioning and elevation of the head of the crib are no longer recommended because of safety concerns. Regardless of the presence of reflux, the only recommended sleeping position for infants is supine, which has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) Sudden infant death syndrome is the sudden and unexpected death of an infant or young child between 2 weeks and 1 year of age in which an examination of the death scene, thorough postmortem... read more (SIDS).

Drug treatment

Three classes of drugs have been used in infants with GERD who do not respond to feeding modification and positioning:

A 2018 consensus practice guideline from North American and European specialty societies recommends that infants and children with GERD unresponsive to feeding and positioning modifications be given a proton pump inhibitor (PPI). If PPIs are unavailable or cannot be used, an H2 blocker can be given. These drugs are not recommended simply for treatment of crying/distress and/or visible regurgitation. A typical PPI regimen is lansoprazole 2 mg/kg orally once a day. For infants who respond, the drug is continued for several months and then tapered and stopped.

Promotility (prokinetic) drugs are theoretically beneficial by speeding gastric emptying and thus reducing the volume of gastric contents and amount of time the contents are present to be refluxed. Possible agents include baclofen, bethanechol, cisapride, domperidone, erythromycin, and metoclopramide. The consensus practice guideline recommends against use of promotility drugs as first-line treatments, although baclofen may be tried before doing surgery on infants who have failed acid-blocking drug treatment. Of the other agents, bethanechol, cisapride, domperidone, and metoclopramide are not recommended because of their potential for adverse effects. For infants who have gastroparesis, erythromycin may be used. Some clinicians are using amoxicillin/clavulanate for its promotility properties, but this is not included in the consensus guidelines.

Surgery

Infants with severe or life-threatening complications of reflux that are unresponsive to medical therapy can be considered for surgical therapy. The main type of antireflux surgery is fundoplication. During this procedure, the top of the stomach is wrapped around the distal esophagus to help tighten the lower esophageal sphincter. Fundoplication can be very effective at resolving reflux but has several complications. It can cause pain when infants vomit (eg, during acute gastroenteritis), and if the wrap is too tight, infants may have dysphagia. If dysphagia occurs, the wrap can be dilated endoscopically. Some anatomic causes of reflux also may have to be corrected surgically.

Key Points

  • Most reflux in infants does not cause other symptoms or complications and resolves spontaneously by age 12 to 18 months.

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is diagnosed when reflux causes complications such as esophagitis, respiratory symptoms (eg, cough, stridor, wheezing, apnea), or impaired growth.

  • Prescribe a therapeutic trial of feeding modifications and after-feeding positioning if GERD symptoms are mild.

  • Consider testing with an upper gastrointestinal series, gastric emptying scan, esophageal probes, or endoscopy for infants with more severe GERD symptoms or for whom a therapeutic trial is not helpful.

  • Acid suppression with a PPI or H2 blocker may help infants with significant GERD.

  • Most infants with GERD respond to medical therapy, but a few require surgical therapy.

More Information

The following is an English-language resource that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

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NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
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