Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is very common in children of all ages, but it is usually mild. Heartburn has been reported in 1.8% of 3-year-olds and in 5.2% of young people between 10 and 17 years old. Children with the following conditions are at higher risk for severe GERD:
- Neurologic impairments.
- Food allergies.
- Cyclic vomiting.
- Cystic fibrosis.
- Problems in the lungs, ear, nose, or throat.
- Any medical condition affecting the digestive tract.
Symptoms in Children
A physician should examine any child who has the following symptoms as soon as possible, because they may indicate complications such as anemia, failure to gain weight, or respiratory problems. Symptoms of severe GERD in infants and small children may include:
- Chronic coughing.
- Frequent infections.
- Gasping or frequent cessation in breathing while asleep (called sleep apnea). However, a 2001 study found no association between GERD and apneas in premature infants.
- Frequent vomiting in infants. About half of all infants up to three months regurgitate milk at least once a day. Some simply spit up; others vomit large amounts after feedings. Vomiting in infants and older children is rarely a sign of GERD. Severe vomiting -- particularly if it is bilious (green colored) -- always requires a doctor's visit, since it could be a symptom of severe obstruction.
- Having to burp babies very frequently during and after feeding.
Complications in Infants and Children
Feeding Problems. Feeding problems may be more severe than previously thought in children with GERD. In one study, children who had GERD and problems swallowing tended to refuse food and were late in eating solids. They also cried more and reacted more negatively in general than non-GERD babies. Such behaviors negatively affected the mothers as well. These findings were supported in an earlier study which reported that children at one year, who had GERD in infancy, were no longer spitting up, but still tended to have negative dining experiences ("too slow," "upsetting"). However, these children were at no greater risk for respiratory illnesses than other one-year olds.
Associations with Asthma and Infections in the Upper Airways. In addition to asthma, GERD is associated with other upper airway problems, including ear infections and sinusitis. Some experts argue that the association with common childhood infections and asthma is unfounded, since GERD is normal in most children.
Dental Erosion. GERD can cause irreversible loss of tooth enamel. Based on a 2002 study, some experts suggest checking for GERD in children with dental erosions. In the study, no child without GERD experienced loss of tooth enamel.
Rare Complications in Infants. Although GERD is very common, the following complications are very rare and only occur in certain cases:
- Failure to thrive.
- Feeding problems and severe vomiting may cause anemia.
- Acid back-up may be inhaled into the airways and cause pneumonia.
The infant's life may be in danger if acid reflux causes spasms in the larynx severe enough to block the airways. In fact, some experts believe this action may contribute to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). More research is needed to determine whether this association is valid.
Managing GERD in Infancy
Here are some hints on managing GERD in infants:
- During and after feeding, infants should be positioned vertically and burped frequently.
- If a baby with GERD is fed formula, a mother should ask the doctor how to thicken it in order to prevent splashing up from the stomach.
- Parents of infants with GERD should discuss baby's sleeping position with their pediatrician. Experts strongly recommend that all healthy infants sleep on their backs to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). For babies with GERD, however, lying on the back may obstruct the airways. In one study, infants with gastroesophageal reflux who spent prolonged periods of time in infant seats, including car seats, had more reflux than those who spent waking time on their stomachs. If the physician recommends that babies with GERD sleep on their stomachs, parents should be sure that their infant's mattress is very firm, possibly tilted up at the head, and that there are no pillows. The baby's head should be turned so that the mouth and nose are completely unobstructed.
- Because food allergies may trigger GERD in children, parents may want to discuss a dietary plan with their physician that starts the child on formulas using non-allergenic proteins, and then incrementally adds other foods until symptoms are triggered.