Gastroesophageal reflux (GER), also known as acid reflux or heartburn, occurs when a baby’s acidic stomach contents regurgitate back into his esophagus—usually due to a weak or immature esophageal sphincter, the band of muscles that keep food contents inside the stomach. Depending upon the severity of the infant acid reflux, the baby might experience pain, inadequate weight gain and other alarming symptoms. Medications can help control this condition and help babies feel better, but doctors often rely upon parental insight into a baby’s feeding patterns and general demeanor to help them diagnose this condition.
Frequent Spitting Up or Vomiting
According to pediatrician Dr. William Sears, about two-thirds of babies will experience some level of reflux during their early months of life. Most babies will outgrow frequent spitting up or occasional vomiting without any medical treatment or ill effects by 12 to 18 months of age. If your baby spits up more than a tablespoon of milk or seems to be in pain during feedings, talk to your doctor about ways to help control the reflux. Projectile vomiting after feedings can indicate a serious medical condition known as pyloric stenosis that can lead to dehydration and malnutrition.
Irritability During or After Feedings
Babies might exhibit “colicky” symptoms, such as crying or excessive fussiness, long past the normal time for colic to stop (three months). They will often cry in pain while eating and for as long as an hour afterward. Your baby might exhibit signs of abdominal pain during these fussy periods and draw her knees up to her chest or arch her back.
Poor Sleep Patterns
While many babies will fall asleep while feeding, a baby suffering from reflux will often become agitated and upset during feedings—making him difficult to get to sleep. He might awake frequently during the night screaming as if in pain.
Failure to Gain Weight
Babies suffering from reflux need to be watched carefully for adequate weight gain since severe GER can lead to inadequate weight gain and even dehydration. At home, watch for wet and dirty diapers to make sure the baby seems to be getting enough to eat, and take her to her pediatrician for weight checks.
Erratic Feeding Patterns
Since eating makes babies experiencing reflux uncomfortable, they might refuse to eat for extended periods of time or want to eat constantly. During some feedings, they might take a significant amount of milk while barely consuming any at a different time.
Coughing or Gagging
You might notice these symptoms during feedings, or your baby might awake from sleep coughing and gagging. In some cases, babies might even experience episodes in which they stop breathing for a short period of time.
If some of the baby’s stomach contents enter her lungs, she might develop a cough at night, frequent ear infections, sinus problems or even pneumonia. Unexplained chest infections and wheezing/asthma can also result from acid reflux.