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Treating Reflux (GERD) in Infants

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By Randall Neustaedter OMD

Impaired digestive function is one of the most common problems of the first 3 to 6 months of life. Reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) and colicky symptoms often plague infants and parents, disturbing the harmonious interactions of young families. The symptoms of night waking, crying, spitting up and painful feeding can be heart-wrenching and worrisome. If severe, these problems can also impair growth. Although many infants grow out of these symptoms on their own as the digestive tract matures, there are several forms of treatment that can soothe the symptoms and normalize digestive function.

Holistic treatment

Holistic pediatric treatment of these infants is simple and straightforward. Since the problem involves impaired stomach and  intestinal function, treatment is directed at encouraging a healthy digestive tract while relieving symptoms.

The primary and most direct forms of treatment are homeopathy and nutrition.

Homeopathic treatment will address the underlying cause through constitutional treatment (e.g. nosodes, Lycopodium) and/or the relief of symptoms through more acute/symptomatic medicines (e.g. Colocynth, Nux vomica) as determined by a qualified practitioner. All of these children should also receive a probiotic supplement: a Lactobacillus bifidus supplement if solely breastfed, or a more broad-based formulation for those infants fed any supplemental formula. Parents can also soothe infants with other techniques such as rocking, abdominal pressure, swaddling, baby-wearing with slings, and propping positions during feedings and at night. Colicky symptoms may also respond to elimination of some aggravating foods from the mother's diet (dairy, spices, caffeine, beans, broccoli, cabbage, and nuts).

Standard treatment

Conventional medical treatment for reflux typically includes drugs that inhibit gastric acid production. The theory is that if stomach acid production is blocked then acid will not irritate the stomach and esophagus. However, stomach acid is there for a reason, to help in digestion and inhibit harmful bacteria. The drugs used to treat reflux fall into two categories: H2-blockers such as ranitidine (Zantac) or famotidine (Pepcid), and proton-pump inhibitors such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or lansoprazole (Prevacid). Unfortunately, these drugs do not address the underlying problems of  reflux, an impaired digestive tract, and they may cause other illnesses and digestive problems. A study published in May 2006 in the journal Pediatrics has shown that infants prescribed gastric acid inhibitors of  either category have an increased risk of pneumonia and digestive system infections than healthy children even after treatment is discontinued. This study of children aged 4-36 months treated by gastroenterologists revealed that those children treated with Zantac or Prilosec had an increased risk of pneumonia and gastroenteritis during treatment and in the 4 month period following drug treatment. The incidence of these diseases was attributed to the inhibition of white blood cell function as a direct result of these drugs, and to the change in gastrointestinal microflora induced by the drugs. For example, children given gastric acid inhibitors have an increased number of bacteria (beta hemolytic Strep) that cause pneumonia. Holistic medical treatment of reflux in infants, children, and adults is a far better alternative than the use of these drugs that do nothing to fix the problem and result in impaired digestive function and consequent disease.

Canani, RB, et al. Therapy with gastric acidity inhibitors increases the risk of  acute gastroenteritis and community-based acquired pneumonia in children. Pediatrics May 2006; 117(5): 817-820.

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