As a pediatric gastroenterologist, the majority of calls I receive are from worried parents who are concerned whether their baby's spit-up is normal. The baby may regurgitate once a day or after every feeding. In fact, 60 percent of healthy babies spit up more than once a day.
Usually, she is content and is gaining weight—we call them “happy spitters”—but the parents are nervous wrecks. They complain that their clothing is stained, their carpets smell, and they're worried that something is seriously wrong with the baby's digestive system. Although in rare instances spit-up may be a sign of a real problem, in most cases it is a normal, benign, transient symptom.
To understand the difference between normal spit-up and a more serious problem, here is a short lesson in infant nutrition and anatomy: After a baby swallows his food (breast milk, formula, or solid food), the food travels through the esophagus into the stomach and then to the small intestine. There is a physiologic valve, called the lower esophageal sphincter, which prevents food from coming back into the esophagus from the stomach. For many healthy babies, this valve relaxes at the wrong time, causing regurgitation. Some babies, especially premature ones, have delayed gastric emptying (I call this “lazy stomach”), which aggravates the problem.
For the vast majority of healthy babies, the spit-up symptom peaks by 4 months of age and normally resolves by the first birthday. As long as your baby appears healthy and is gaining weight, you can be reassured that she will outgrow the problem.
Here are a few tips to help an infant who spits up:
- Avoid overfeeding. Smaller and more frequent feedings will empty the stomach faster.
- Minimize intake of air during feeding. If the bottle is too low, the baby can swallow air, which causes gas and crying.
- Don't jiggle the baby during and after feeding. Too much movement may cause reflux.
- Sit her in an upright position after feeding. Sitting and lying on the back makes reflux worse. Hold the baby in your arms as much as you can.
- Elevate the crib at a 30-degree angle. I suggest using a book under the legs at the head of the crib. Do not use pillows to prop him up in the crib, since this can cause suffocation.
- Avoid exposure to tobacco smoke. This relaxes the esophageal sphincter.
- Thicken formula with cereal. Add 1 tablespoon of cereal for every 2 ounces of formula and crosscut the nipple to facilitate the flow of this mixture. Although this may improve reflux, it can cause excessive gas and constipation. Consult your doctor before trying and what kind of cereal you can use.
When these lifestyle measures do not improve the symptom of spit-up and the regurgitation problem is severe, it may be gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This condition is associated with:
- Poor weight gain (due to lack of caloric intake)
- Excessive crying
- Respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing, coughing, hoarseness, or pneumonia
- Arching, hiccups, or funny faces (such as tongue extrusion)
- Feeding difficulties, such as pushing the nipple away
- Gagging or choking, which can be dangerous in young babies since they may stop breathing and turn blue
If you're worried your baby's spit-up isn't normal and might be caused by GERD, consult with your doctor. He or she may recommend medical therapies including a hypoallergenic formula or the use of antacids.
Written by Graciela Wetzler, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children's Hospital of Brooklyn at Maimonides Medical Center.