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Heartburn in Children and Infants

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How Is Heartburn Diagnosed in Infants and Children?

It's often hard to clearly diagnose heartburn in young children. That's because they have more difficulty articulating their symptoms than adults. Instead of feeling a burning in their chest, they may experience heartburn as a stomachache higher in their belly.

If your child is displaying any symptoms of heartburn or GERD, start with a visit to the pediatrician. You may get a referral to a specialist called a gastroenterologist. A gastroenterologist treats diseases of the digestive system.

The doctor will examine your child and ask about symptoms. Tests for heartburn caused by GERD include:

  • Upper GI (gastrointestinal) series. After your child drinks a chalky liquid containing a contrast material (barium), X-rays will be taken of the esophagus, stomach, and part of the intestines.
  • Endoscopy. While the child is under sedation, a small, flexible tube with a camera on the end (endoscope) is inserted through the mouth into the esophagus and stomach. It can allow the doctor to view these areas and remove a sample of tissue (biopsy) if necessary.
  • Esophageal pH probe. The doctor inserts a thin flexible tube through the child's nose and into the esophagus to test acid levels in the esophagus.
  • Gastric emptying study. After your child drinks milk that contains a special radioactive material, the doctor uses a camera to watch the substance move through the digestive tract.

Heartburn Treatment for Children

Treatment will depend on your child's age and the cause of the heartburn.

Though it usually improves on its own by the time the child reaches his or her first birthday, heartburn in infants can be difficult to treat. One study that reviewed several common home heartburn relief methods showed that most didn't work -- including putting the infant to sleep in a more upright position (even though this is still recommended), thickening the baby formula, or using a pacifier. Burping your infant or keeping him upright for about 30 minutes after feeding may help, though.

Medications are effective treatments for heartburn that doesn't improve on its own. Heartburn drugs include:

  • H2 blockers (Tagamet, Zantac, Pepcid)
  • Proton pump inhibitors (such as Dexilant, Nexium, Prevacid, and Prilosec)
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