Clinical Guidelines for Family Physicians

Pediatric gastroesophageal reflux


Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is common in infants and often presents a challenge to doctors who try to balance changing evidence with concerns about complications and parents’ concerns about their infant’s discomfort. In a 2018 guideline, the writing committee defined GER as reflux of stomach contents to the esophagus. GER is considered pathologic and, therefore, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) when it is associated with troublesome symptoms and/or complications that can include esophagitis and aspiration.

Dr. Neil Skolnik, professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health

Dr. Neil Skolnik


GERD is difficult to diagnose in infants. The symptoms of GERD, such as crying after feeds, regurgitation, and irritability, occur commonly in all infants and in any individual infant may not be reflective of GERD. Regurgitation is common, frequent and normal in infants up to 6 months of age. A common challenge occurs when families request treatment for infants with irritability, back arching, and/or regurgitation who are otherwise doing well. In this group of infants it is important to recognize that neither testing nor therapy is indicated unless there is difficulty with feeding, growth, acquisition of milestones, or red flag signs.

In infants with recurrent regurgitation history, physical exam is usually sufficient to distinguish uncomplicated GER from GERD and other more worrisome diagnoses. Red flag symptoms raise the possibility of a different diagnosis. Red flag symptoms include weight loss; lethargy; excessive irritability/pain; onset of vomiting for more than 6 months or persisting past 12-18 months of age; rapidly increasing head circumference; persistent forceful, nocturnal, bloody, or bilious vomiting; abdominal distention; rectal bleeding; and chronic diarrhea. GERD that starts after 6 months of age or which persists after 12 months of age warrants further evaluation, often with referral to a pediatric gastroenterologist.

When GERD is suspected, the first therapeutic steps are to institute behavioral changes. Caregivers should avoid overfeeding and modify the feeding pattern to more frequent feedings consisting of less volume at each feed. The addition of thickeners to feeds does reduce regurgitation, although it may not affect other GERD signs and symptoms. Formula can be thickened with rice cereal, which tends to be an affordable choice that doesn’t clog nipples. Enzymes present in breast milk digest cereal thickeners, so breast milk can be thickened with xanthum gum (after 1 year of age) or carob bean–based products (after 42 weeks gestation).

If these modifications do not improve symptoms, the next step is to change the type of feeds. Some infants in whom GERD is suspected actually have cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA), so a trial of cow’s milk elimination is warranted. A breastfeeding mother can eliminate all dairy from her diet including casein and whey. Caregivers can switch to an extensively hydrolyzed formula or an amino acid–based formula. The guideline do not recommend soy-based formulas because they are not available in Europe and because a significant percentage of infants with CMPA also develop allergy to soy, and they do not recommend rice hydrolysate formula because of a lack of evidence. Dairy can be reintroduced at a later point. While positional changes including elevating the head of the crib or placing the infant in the left lateral position can help decrease GERD, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages these positions because of safety concerns, so the guidelines do not recommend positional change.

If a 2-4 week trial of nonpharmacologic interventions fails, the next step is referral to a pediatric gastroenterologist. If a pediatric gastroenterologist is not available, a 4-8 week trial of acid suppressive medication may be given. No trial has shown utility of a trial of acid suppression as a diagnostic test for GERD. Medication should only be used in infants with strongly suspected GERD and, per the guidelines, “should not be used for the treatment of visible regurgitation in otherwise healthy infants.” Medications to treat GER do not have evidence of efficacy, and there is evidence of an increased risk of infection with use of acid suppression, including an increased risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, pneumonia, upper respiratory tract infections, sepsis, urinary tract infections, and Clostridium difficile. If used, proton-pump inhibitors are preferred over histamine-2 receptor blockers. Antacids and alginates are not recommended.

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