While many are aware of gastroesophageal reflux disease and its symptoms (heartburn and uncomfortable feeling in the chest) after a big meal as adults, the condition may be prevalent in children as well. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, can cause vomiting and fussiness after feeding in infants, and heartburn, stomach, and chest discomfort in older kids. The condition can be quite common in infants during the first year of life, with most mothers dealing accordingly. Most infants, however, grow out of GERD by the time they are one year old. Older children with GERD may also improve with growth, but some cases require treatment.

The burping, heartburn, and spitting up associated with GERD are the results of acidic stomach contents moving backward into the esophagus (called reflux). This can happen because the muscle that connects the esophagus with the stomach (the esophageal sphincter) relaxes at the wrong time or does not close properly. Most of the time, reflux in babies is due to a poorly coordinated gastrointestinal tract. Many infants with the condition are otherwise healthy; however, some infants can have problems affecting their nerves, brain, or muscles. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, a child’s immature digestive system is usually to blame. Symptoms may be eased by elevating the head of the baby’s crib, holding the baby upright for 30 minutes after a feeding, changing the feeding schedule, or trying solid food, with your doctor’s approval.

In older children, the causes of GERD are often the same as those seen in adults. Anything that causes the muscular valve between the stomach and esophagus (the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) to relax, or anything that increases the pressure below the LES, can cause GERD. Your child may experience heartburn, also known as acid indigestion, which feels like a burning sensation in the chest, neck, and throat. It can last up to 2 hours and tends to be worse after meals. Children may find relief by avoiding foods and drinks that seem to trigger GERD symptoms such as greasy and fatty foods, garlic and onions, citrus fruits, and spicy foods. Keeping your child upright at least two hours after eating may minimize the occurrence of GERD as well as encouraging your child to get regular exercise. Doctors may recommend raising the head of a child’s bed 6 to 8 inches to minimize reflux that occurs at night. Serving several small meals throughout the day, rather than three large meals will also keep heartburn at bay.

Certain factors may also contribute to GERD, including obesity, overeating, certain foods, some beverages, and specific medications. There also appears to be an inherited component to GERD, as it is more common in some families than in others. GERD and heartburn are unfortunate annoyances of adulthood and, with a little observation and effort, can be prevented from making an early visit to your child.