Oct. 20, 2011 -- Babies may spit up and cry and fuss for seemingly no reason. But one children's health expert has noticed an alarming increase in the number of infants being prescribed acid-suppressing drugs to reduce unexplained crying and spitting up.
In a commentary published in The Journal of Pediatrics, Eric Hassell, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in San Francisco, warns that the use of acid-suppressing medications to babies under 1 year old has skyrocketed. One large study in the U.S. found a 16-fold increase in the number of prescriptions for a kid-friendly liquid form of acid-suppressing drugs between 1999 and 2004.
Despite this recent spike in prescriptions, Hassall argues that the vast majority of infants don't have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is what these drugs are meant to treat.
"There was no good medical reason" for this huge jump in acid-reflux drug use in infants, he says. "There was no sudden epidemic of reflux disease."
Hassall suggests that a baby's inconsolable crying and spitting up, which are separate symptoms, have become combined into a diagnosis of acid-reflux disease by some pediatricians. But this spitting up likely isn't "acid reflux" because infants have frequent feedings that tend to buffer stomach acid.
Most reflux is physiological, Hassall tells WebMD. In most cases, it's not the spitting up that should be treated, he says. The real issue is the unexplained crying.
To be sure, having your little bundle of joy morph into a little one who is wailing, bawling, and red-faced is nerve-wracking for frazzled parents. And some moms and dads put a lot of pressure on pediatricians to "do something" to help their hard-to-soothe infants.
"Parents are demanding treatment and demanding higher doses of drugs," Hassall says.
It's sometimes easier and quicker for a doctor to write a prescription instead of taking the time to explain what parents can try in place of drugs. He suspects that both parents and pediatricians are unaware of the extent to which acid-reducing drugs are being overprescribed or of their potential side effects if used long-term.