Infant acid reflux occurs when acids and other materials in the stomach flow back into the esophagus. The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the throat with the stomach. Normally, the esophagus contracts to move food from the throat into the stomach. A tough rim of muscle, called the esophageal sphincter, opens to allow food out of the esophagus, and then contracts tightly to prevent it from re-entering the esophagus. In infant acid reflux, the esophageal sphincter does not work properly, and the acid flows backwards into the esophagus, causing the infant discomfort. Acid reflux is not at all uncommon in infants–up to have of all babies may experience it occasionally.
Most of these babies are healthy and require no special medical intervention. Symptoms of occasional infant acid reflux may include spitting or vomiting, coughing, occasional fussiness or crying after eating (acid reflux can cause an unpleasant burning sensation in the chest and throat), and reluctance to feed due to discomfort.
Serious Problem In Infants With Acid Reflux
Usually, acid reflux is mild, transitory, and requires no special treatment. Sometimes, however, an infant may experience severe and consistent acid reflux. Such infants may begin to lose weight because they are unable to keep enough food in their stomachs to nourish them adequately. The occasional crying or fussiness at a meal turns into a daily refusal of food, since eating has become associated with severe discomfort in the baby’s mind. If food in the esophagus is being aspirated (sucked) into the lungs, the infant may develop respiratory problems such as wheezing and gasping for air. Finally, the acid reflux may damage the infant’s esophagus enough to cause anemia due to loss of blood.
Any infant with symptoms of serious acid reflux should be taken to a doctor immediately. The doctor can perform tests to confirm the diagnosis of acid reflux. Much of the time, even serious problems with acid reflux will clear up on their own, or with a few changes in the way the baby is positioned or fed. Sometimes the doctor will recommend giving the baby frequent small feedings instead of a few large feedings, thickening the formula, and feeding your infant in an upright position. Making sure to burp your infant both during and after meals can also help.
If the infant acid reflux does not clear up with these suggestions, stronger interventions may be called for. Your doctor may prescribe medication or even recommend surgery to tighten the esophageal sphincter.
Most of the time, however, infant acid reflux is not much to worry about. Babies usually outgrow it naturally with no negative effects.