Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is a frequently encountered problem in infancy; it commonly resolves spontaneously by 12 months of age. Caregivers are challenged to discriminate between physiologic GER and the much less common and more serious condition of pathologic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Pathologic GERD may require more extensive clinical evaluation and necessitate treatment. GERD may be primary or secondary; secondary GERD is associated with a number of genetic syndromes, chromosomal abnormalities, birth defects, or a host of neurologic conditions frequently seen in the newborn intensive care unit.
This article reviews the unique anatomic, physiologic, developmental, and nutritional vulnerabilities of infants that make them susceptible to GER and GERD. The North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition have recently developed a comprehensive evidence-based clinical practice guideline that structures the diagnostic approach and treatment option in infants with suspected and confirmed GERD. These guidelines provide clear definitions of GER and GERD to aid the clinician in distinguishing between the 2 conditions. They emphasize the use of history and physical examination and discuss the indications for the use of other diagnostic procedures, such as upper gastrointestinal studies, nuclear medicine scintiscan, esophagogastroduodenoscopy with biopsy, and esophageal pH probe monitoring.
Management of GERD begins with a nonpharmacologic approach; the emphasis is on positioning, a trial of a hypoallergenic formula, and thickening of feedings. When these measures fail to control symptoms, a trial of either histamine2 antagonists or a proton pump inhibitor may be indicated. Finally, surgical treatment may be needed if all other management measures fail. New sleep recommendations for infants with GERD are now consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics' standard recommendations. Prone sleep positioning is only considered in unusual cases, where the risk of death and complications from GERD outweighs the potential increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The nursing care of infants with GER and GERD, as well as relevant issues for parent education and support, are reviewed and are essential elements in managing this common condition.