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Heartburn in children and infants

Heartburn is often thought of as an adult complaint, but gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, or GORD, can also affect young children.

GORD occurs when stomach acid backs up into the oesophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach.

The oesophagus is shorter and narrower in young children, increasing the risk of acid reflux.

It is hard for infants to explain their symptoms, but signs of GORD for parents to look for include:

  • Bringing up food often
  • Crying a lot
  • Being irritable
  • Having bad breath
  • Sleep problems
  • Arching of the back during or after a feed
  • Not wanting a feed, but still sucking on something like a dummy

If these symptoms persist, seek medical advice.

In addition to feeling discomfort, infants with heartburn may fail to gain weight properly.

How is heartburn diagnosed in infants and children?

It's often hard to clearly diagnose heartburn in young children. That's because they have more difficulty articulating their symptoms than adults. Instead of feeling a burning in their chest, they may experience heartburn as a stomach-ache higher in their tummy.

If your child is displaying any symptoms of heartburn or GORD, start with a visit to your GP. You may get a referral to a specialist called a gastroenterologist. A gastroenterologist treats diseases of the digestive system.

The doctor will examine your child and ask about symptoms. Tests for heartburn caused by GORD will depend on a child’s age and include:

  • Upper GI ( gastrointestinal) series. After your child drinks a chalky liquid containing a contrast material (barium), X-rays will be taken of the oesophagus, stomach and part of the intestines.
  • Endoscopy. While the child is under sedation, a small flexible tube with a camera on the end (endoscope) is inserted through the mouth into the oesophagus and stomach. It can allow the doctor to view these areas and remove a sample of tissue ( biopsy) if necessary.
  • Oesophageal pH probe. The doctor inserts a thin flexible tube through the child's nose and into the oesophagus to test acid levels in the oesophagus.
  • Gastric emptying study. After your child drinks milk that contains a special radioactive material, the doctor uses a camera to watch the substance move through the digestive tract.

Heartburn relief for children

Treatment will depend on your child's age and the cause of the heartburn.

Though it usually improves on its own by the time the child reaches their first birthday, heartburn in infants can be difficult to treat. One study that reviewed several common home heartburn relief methods showed that most didn't work, including putting the infant to sleep in a more upright position, thickening the baby formula or using a dummy. Winding your infant or keeping them upright for about 30 minutes after feeding may help, though.

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