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How to Recognize Reflux in Babies

Lauren B. Stevens
May 26, 2015

If your baby is crying before, during or after feedings, it could be reflux. Here's what experts say.

Your baby cries during and after feedings ... and is still crying despite being fed, changed, rocked and cuddled. Could reflux the culprit? Reflux in babies is hard to detect.

Here are some signs to look for to determine if you might want to explore the possibility of reflux with your child's pediatrician:

What Is Reflux?
Reflux -- gastroesophogeal reflux (GERD) -- is a condition in which the contents of the stomach come up after a feeding and are acidic enough to irritate or damage the lining of the esophagus, according to Mayo Clinic. Reflux is "the most common esophageal disorder in children of all ages," says Jo Ann Serota, a long-time pediatric nurse practitioner and a lactation consultant in Ambler, Penn.

She defines it as the "backward movement of gastric contents across the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) into the esophagus." It occurs, she says, because "the LES may be too relaxed to keep the stomach contents in the stomach." With babies, says Serota, "breast milk or formula escapes from the stomach, via this sphincter, up the esophagus (regurgitation), causing a painful, burning sensation."

What Are the Symptoms?
Some common signs of reflux in babies, according to Colette Acker, a lactation consultant and the executive director of The Breastfeeding Resource Center, are:

  • Your baby arches her back during feedings.
  • Your baby comes on and off the breast and/or cries during feedings.
  • Your baby often cries after feedings.

Your baby may also experience a dry cough after feeds or sound congested, Acker says, adding that in more extreme cases of reflux, a baby may limit his intake because it's uncomfortable to be full, and he may start losing weight. Or, she notes, "Some babies may act like nothing is wrong, and mom gets a shock at the next pediatric weight check."

Serota notes these additional signs:

  • Your baby is irritable, especially during or after feedings.
  • Your baby chokes or gags during or after feedings.
  • Your baby refuses to feed.
  • Your baby fails to thrive or doesn't gain weight.

Serota adds that infants can also display signs of sleep apnea (breathing pausing during sleep), stridor (noisy breathing) or respiratory problems like lower airway disease (a respiratory problem of the lower airways caused by RSV, a virus).

How to Treat Reflux
Consult your pediatrician if you have questions or suspect your baby has reflux. If your baby is diagnosed, you'll be advised of treatment options depending on the severity of the case. To prevent or relieve symptoms, Serota recommends that parents elevate the head of baby's crib (by placing a small blanket or towel under the mattress, not under baby) and be careful not to overfeed their babies. In some cases, she suggests parents should "thicken feeds" using a prepared thickened formula, but always check with your pediatrician. Breast-fed infants with reflux should be fed as usual while being careful not to overfeed, she notes. For more serious cases, she says, she may prescribe medicine to reduce the acidity of gastric contents.

If your baby is diagnosed with reflux, do not despair. Serota says, "Reflux becomes apparent in the first couple months of life and resolves in most children by 12 months of age." You'll get through this phase and you and your baby will probably both forget it was ever a problem.

For more on baby health, read about Lactose Intolerance in Infants.

Lauren Stevens was lucky enough to only have battled colic and sleepless nights when her son was an infant. A freelance writer, Lauren writes for various outlets, including The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and her blog, lo-wren.com.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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