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What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is reflux?

Reflux in adults is known as heartburn or indigestion. Reflux in babies is a similar condition, but the cause is different. In infant reflux, the contents of the stomach come back up into his gullet (oesophagus) or his mouth. It happens because the valve at the top of the stomach that links to the oesophagus that normally keeps food down is under-developed, allowing food and stomach acid come back up.

About 50% of babies get reflux in their first three months of life, but in most babies the valve will have strengthened and reflux will no longer be a problem by around 10 months or so. In a small percentage, it can be a severe problem, causing a condition doctors call 'failure to thrive', which means the baby isn't taking in and keeping down enough nutrients to grow properly.

What are the symptoms of Reflux?

The first signs of reflux are possetting, where a little milk comes back after each feed. Some babies vomit or have hiccups, and reflux can happen in breastfed or formula fed babies. You should consult your health visitor or doctor if:

  • your baby regularly has reflux more than five times a day
  • your baby vomits a lot
  • your baby coughs after a feed as if something's gone down the wrong way
  • your baby cries a lot after feeds.

What are the treatments and remedies of Reflux?

As long as your baby is feeding well and seems happy and contented there's no need for medical intervention, but you might find things improve if you feed him in as upright a position as possible and keep him upright for up to half an hour after a feed; feed him little and often if he'll adapt to this; and burp your baby regularly during and after his feeds. In severe cases, your doctor might prescribe a special thickening agent that you can add to your expressed breast milk or formula. Although you can buy some of these from pharmacies, you should never alter your baby's feeds without the advice of a doctor or health visitor. There's also an infant formulation of Gaviscon your doctor might prescribe that can be mixed with your expressed milk or your baby's formula. If none of these strategies help your baby, your doctor might suspect an allergy or intolerance to cow's milk and suggest you cut it out from your diet temporarily if you're breastfeeding. In formula fed babies, a hypoallergenic formula might help. If your baby has severe symptoms, fails to put on weight or loses weight, your doctor will refer him to a paediatrician for further investigation.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net