Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease in Neonates and Infants

When and How to Treat


Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is defined as the involuntary retrograde passage of gastric contents into the esophagus with or without regurgitation or vomiting. It is a frequently experienced physiologic condition occurring several times a day, mostly postprandial and causes no symptoms. These infants are also called ‘happy spitters’. GER disease (GERD) occurs when reflux of the gastric contents causes symptoms that affect the quality of life or pathologic complications, such as failure to thrive, feeding or sleeping problems, chronic respiratory disorders, esophagitis, hematemesis, apnea, and apparent life-threatening events.

About 70–85 % of infants have regurgitation within the first 2 months of life, and this resolves without intervention in 95 % of infants by 1 year of age. The predominant mechanism causing GERD is transient lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxation, which is defined as an abrupt decrease in LES pressure to the level of intragastric pressure, unrelated to swallowing and of relatively longer duration than the relaxation triggered by a swallow.

Regurgitation and vomiting are the most common symptoms of infant reflux. A thorough history and physical examination with attention to warning signals suggesting other causes is generally sufficient to establish a clinical diagnosis of uncomplicated infant GER. Choking, gagging, coughing with feedings or significant irritability can be warning signs for GERD or other diagnoses. If there is forceful vomiting, laboratory and radiographic investigation (upper gastrointestinal series) are warranted to exclude other causes of vomiting. Irritability coupled with back arching in infants is thought to be a non-verbal equivalent of heartburn in older children. Other causes of irritability, including cow’s milk protein allergy, neurologic disorders, constipation and infection, should be ruled out. The presentation of cow’s milk protein allergy overlaps with GERD, and both conditions may co-exist in 42–58 % of infants. In these infants, symptoms decrease significantly within 2–4 weeks after elimination of cow’s milk protein from the diet. For non-complicated reflux, no intervention is required for most infants.

Effective parental reassurance and education regarding regurgitation and lifestyle changes are usually sufficient to manage infant reflux. Sandifer syndrome, apnea and apparent life-threatening events are the extraesophageal manifestations of GERD in infants.

Pharmacotherapeutic agents used to treat GERD encompass antisecretory agents, antacids, surface barrier agents and prokinetics. Currently, North American Society for Pediatric Gasroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) and European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) practice guidelines concluded that there is insufficient evidence to justify the routine use of prokinetic agents. Esomeprazole (Nexium) is now approved in the US for short-term treatment of GERD with erosive esophagitis in infants aged from 1 to 12 months. Although Nissen fundoplication is now well established as a treatment option in selected cases of GERD in children, its role in neonates and young infants is unclear and is only reserved for selective infants who did not respond to medical therapy and have life-threatening complications of GERD.

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Correspondence to Samra Blanchard.

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Czinn, S.J., Blanchard, S. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease in Neonates and Infants. Pediatr Drugs 15, 19–27 (2013).

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  • Esophagitis
  • Baclofen
  • Lower Esophageal Sphincter
  • Esomeprazole
  • Cisapride