Gastro-oesophageal reflux (GOR) is the spontaneous effortless regurgitation of gastric contents into the oesophagus that may or may not result in vomiting. It is a self limiting condition and often resolves by 18 months with or without treatment.
Physiological reflux occurs in most premature infants but the total amount of reflux in a 24-hour period is usually not grossly abnormal. It is due to oesophageal sphincter relaxation, slower gastric motility and increased gastric acidity. When it becomes more severe & is associated with other symptoms, it is considered pathological (GORD). Investigation and management of GOR in the neonatal nursery should be reserved for those infants in whom the reflux is considered to be pathological (GORD).
GOR issues to note
Issues to note about infants with GOR:
- Most infants having recurrent apnoeas and bradycardia do not have GORD.
- Some GOR occurs in most premature infants, but it is usually not pathological.
- There is no gold standard for the diagnosis of occult GOR, although research into multi-channel intraluminal impedance is promising
- In general non-pharmacological measures should be adopted first in the treatment of GOR.
- Most infants do not require pharmacological intervention.
- Pharmacological treatment of GOR should only be undertaken where there is proven, pathological reflux( GORD).
- Where pharmacological treatment is commenced it should be discontinued after a trial period (eg two weeks) if it is ineffective.
When the lower oesophageal sphincter – the muscle that acts as a valve between the esophagus and stomach – has not fully developed in infants, GOR can occur. While the sphincter muscle is still developing, it may push stomach contents back up, resulting in regurgitation.
When might GOR be pathological (GORD)?
These features may indicate that GOR has become pathological:
- delayed acid clearance resulting in bleeding
- stricture (incidence unknown)
- pulmonary complications
- apnoea (however, most apnoea is not due to GORD)
- cyanotic episodes
- exacerbation of chronic lung disease in some cases
- failure to thrive, secondary to poor intake
- apparent life-threatening events and SIDS (controversial)
Differential diagnosis (of vomiting)
Diagnosis of GOR
Diagnosis for GOR is usually clinical and may involve:
- barium swallow and ultrasound nonspecific (only useful to rule out structural abnormalities)
- 24-hour pH probe, although gastric contents must be acid preterm infants tend to be on frequent sometimes continuous milk feeds which buffer gastric acid and this limits the use of the pH probe in neonates
- demonstration of acid in oral secretions by using litmus paper (will not diagnose reflux into lower oesophagus)
- white oral secretions may be differentiated from milk if milk is tinged with methylene blue (few drops only)
- endoscopy little data is available for preterm infants
- radio-nucleotide studies not standardised in preterm infants
- oesophageal manometry catheter size limits usefulness in VLBW
Management of GOR
Non-pharmacological management of GOR involves the following aspects.
- Prone or left lateral positioning has been shown to reduce symptoms of GOR as the gastro-oesophageal junction is clear of fluid in this position. In the neonatal nursery, where infants are monitored and continually observed, prone and left lateral positions may be implemented. It is however recommended that continuous cardio-respiratory monitoring and oxygen saturation monitoring be used in these circumstances (not just apnoea monitoring).
- As babies mature they should be placed on their back on a firm flat mattress that is not elevated or tilted as soon as possible and prior to discharge (see 'Discharge planning'.
- Elevating the sleeping surface for back sleeping babies does not reduce GOR and is not recommended.
- The frequency of feeds should be increased, and the volume decreased.
- Indwelling vs. intermittent tube insertion should be considered.
- Continuous feeding (gastric or transpyloric) can be undertaken, although there is little evidence for this.
- Thickeners including Karicare, Carobel, Gaviscon can be used, although there is no current research to support or refute their effectiveness.
- A trial of extensively hydrolyzed or cow’s milk protein-free formula may be undertaken.
Pharmacological management for proven, pathological GORD
The objective is to reduce the acidity of stomach contents, not to treat the GOR itself. Treatment options may involve:
- antacid therapies eg Gaviscon, Mylanta
- h3 blockers eg Ranitidine
- proton pump inhibitors eg Omeprazole
Family education is paramount in emphasizing safe sleeping positioning for babies at discharge. SIDS and Kids recommend that all babies, including those with GOR, sleep on their back on a firm, clean and well-fitting mattress that is flat (not tilted or elevated) to reduce the risk of SUDI, including SIDS and fatal sleeping accidents. Babies should not be discharged home to lie in the prone position unless they are awake and being closely observed by an adult at all times.
Issues to note:
- Medications that reduce gastric acidity may alter GIT flora and increase the risk of NEC so should be avoided in low birth weight infants. There is an increased risk of hospitalisation with lower respiratory tract infection in infants treated with Omeprazole.
- Metoclopramide (Maxolon) is not recommended as it may cause irritability, apnoea and dystonia.
- Fundoplication is rarely used and would only be indicated for intractable or life-threatening proven GORD and failed pharmacological therapy.
Areas of uncertainty in clinical practice
- Reflux-specific behavioural criteria (eg discomfort, head retraction and mouthing) may be inappropriate as diagnostic criteria for GOR in premature infants.
- The role of agents (eg domperidone, erythromycin) that enhance gastric emptying.
- A new GORD behavioural score is currently being developed but is yet to be validated.
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First published: May 2016
Last web update: October 2018
Review by: May 2019
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Page last updated: 12 Nov 2020