According to the Gastroenterology Clinics of North America, about 50% of perfectly healthy babies spit up more than twice a day — and though it’s natural for parents to be concerned, studies show that a full 95% of those babies will stop spitting up all on their own, with no treatment necessary. However, as The New York Times points out, doctors may be worrying parents far more than warranted when it comes to basic baby spit up. Some doctors are telling parents that their baby has Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), an actual disease that requires drug treatment, thus resulting in many babies receiving drugs for a common problem that will usually go away on its own. How parents should think about spitting up is that a majority of babies spit up, making it a fairly normal symptom babies exhibit, not as a disease that needs special treatment, and least of all, medication. As explained in The New York Times piece, “Infants vomit more often because they have an all-liquid diet. They have an immature esophageal sphincter, which doesn’t quite close off the stomach from the esophagus. They eat every few hours, and they have small stomachs. Countless infants will have symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux.” Furthermore the article notes, “There’s plenty of blame to go around for this mess. But broadening our definition of disease probably made all of this possible.”
GERD is more extreme than plain old spitting up. Babies with actual GERD often experience their stomach contents (food or liquid) leaking back from their stomach into their esophagus, which causes irritation, heartburn and other symptoms. It’s rare that a baby or child really has GERD, but The New York Times article says that over time, more and more babies with basic reflux have been labeled as having a “disease,” thus tripling the diagnosis of GERD in babies between 2000 to 2005. Babies who are diagnosed with GERD are commonly treated with proton pump inhibitors (P.P.I.s) even though P.P.I.s have never been approved as a safe infant treatment by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s not just that babies are being given drugs needlessly either. One study has shown that babies getting P.P.I.’s experience some significantly serious adverse effects, including respiratory tract infections. Another study, published by Dr. Beth Tarini, at the University of Michigan, showed that when parents are told specifically that their child has GERD, instead of being told that spitting up is a common problem, the parents are far more likely to want their child to take medication, EVEN if the parents were also told the medicine wouldn’t work. On the flip-side when parents are told their child has a common problem, they aren’t interested in drug treatment. This important article shows that how doctors communicate with parents really does matter. The words that doctors use make a huge difference in how parents decide to handle a situation. As a parent, this article should make you aware that some doctors may be quick to treat a common issue that may simply resolve on its own.
* Editor’s Note: My daughter had severe issues with acid reflux and spitting up copious amounts as an infant. Of course, our pediatrician insisted she needed to go on Prevacid to medicate the problem. Sadly, I wasn’t well informed at the time and we gave our baby girl just one dose of the Prevacid, which resulted in her being up literally all night long, wired and unable to sleep at all. We never gave her another dose of the medication. I did some research on my own and banned all dairy from my diet in an attempt to cure her naturally (I was exclusively breastfeeding her at that time). Once I eliminated dairy, her reflux went away entirely. I’m not saying this would work for every parent or child, but I thought it was worth mentioning here, as we experienced a doctor telling us we had no other option than medication to solve the problem. – Beth