Sick and tired – the truth about infantile reflux
By Dr Tom Waterfield
We have all had that difficult conversation regarding “reflux” when a tired parent has come to us with their “sicky child” and an unshakeable belief that their baby has gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. There is often enormous pressure to provide a solution but how do we decide which children need treatment and what treatments should we use? In view of the recent concerns regarding the use of Domperidone I have chosen to review the current evidence base for the management of this common problem.
The North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition(NASPGHAN) and the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) produced a useful guideline document in 20091. This concise 50 page document discusses the evidence base for all aspects of gastro-oesophageal reflux and some of the key points are outlined below.
1) Physiological Gastro-oesophageal reflux (GER) is common; around 50% of healthy infants will display symptoms of GER. These “happy spitters” will be gaining weight and healthy1.
2) Faltering growth is unlikely to be due to GERD and alternate diagnosis such as cow’s milk protein allergy should be considered1.
1) The Gold-Standard investigation to make a positive diagnosis of GERD is an impedance study. This has largely replaced the pH study. In this study the changes in the electrical impedance (ie, resistance) between multiple electrodes located along an oesophageal catheter are used to measure reflux. Unlike a pH study the impedance study will also be able to detect non-acidic reflux1.
2) In the majority of cases there will be no role for any other diagnostic test for GERD1
Try to avoid treating simple GER. Reassurance is often all that is required. Before starting any treatment have a frank discussion regarding the risks and benefits1.
2) Positioning “Tummy Time”
There is evidence that lying prone improves GERD when compared with lying supine or semi-erect. It is however, not recommended that children sleep prone due to the associated risk of sudden infantile death (SIDS). A sensible compromise might involve allowing the child to lie prone when awake and supervised by the parent. Semi-supine positions (such as sitting in a car seat) are not recommended and may exacerbate reflux symptoms1.
3) Thickened Feeds
Commercially available thickened feeds (anti-reflux feeds) are safe and relatively effective at reducing visible regurgitation1.
4) Buffering agents and Alginates
There is very little evidence to support the use of alginates (e.g. Gaviscon Infant) in the treatment of GERD although their use is likely to be safe1.
5) H2RAs and PPIs (Unlicensed treatments)
Antacid treatment with Histamine 2 Receptor Antagonsists (HR2As) is effective at healing proven oesophagitis in adults but there is very little data to support their use in infancy. H2RAs such as Ranitidine are relatively safe but their effectiveness is unproven and there are high rates of tachyphylaxis thereby limiting their usefulness in the long term1.
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) such as Lansoprazole and Omeprazole do not demonstrate tachyphylaxis and can be used for longer term acid suppression. Despite this however, randomised placebo controlled studies have failed to demonstrate a benefit of (PPIs) over placebo when treating GERD in infants1.
Some studies have suggested that long term acid suppression with PPIs and H2RAs can lead to increased rates of pneumonia and gastroenteritis1.
6) Prokinetics (unlicensed)
ESPGHAN and NASPGHAN advise against the use of all prokinetic agents including Erythromycin and Domperidone. There is no reliable evidence to support their effectiveness at treating GERD in infants and there have been concerns raised over the potentially cardiotoxic effects of Domperidone2.
Reflux is very common with half of infants having some symptoms. In the majority of cases reassurance is all that is required. If symptoms are severe and persistent and an alternate diagnosis is unlikely then consider thickened feeds and “tummy time” as a first line treatment. If this is unsuccessful then consider antacids but be aware that the evidence base for these treatments is limited and they are being used off license. Prokinetics play no part in managing GERD in infants and Domperidone use may be cardiotoxic2.
1) Pediatric Gastroesophageal Reflux Clinical Practice Guidelines: Joint Recommendations of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition(NASPGHAN) and the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition (ESPGHAN)Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 49:498–547 # 2009
2) Domperidone: limited benefits with significant risk for sudden cardiac death. Hondeghem LM.J CardiovascPharmacol. 2013 Mar;61(3):218-25.