Figuring out if your child has colic or acid reflux

Your baby’s fists are clenched, her arms and legs flailing with her face scrunched up in pain, with unrelenting screams. Nothing you do seems to help. It’s heartbreaking to watch your baby suffer. Before you think “colic,” and assume there’s no cure, consider a treatable condition: acid reflux. Dr. Marianne Black of Toledo’s Franklin Park Pediatrics clues parents in on what to watch for while providing tips to help your infant feel better.

Distinguishing Colic from Acid Reflux

Common in the evening and most often appearing in infants from 6-12 weeks, colic is often diagnosed with the rule of threes: crying for 3 hours at a time, at least 3 days a week, for 3 weeks in a row.

“I define colic as excessive crying for no apparent reason that usually resolves on its own within the first 2 to 3 months,” said Dr. Black. “It may be caused by excess gas, exhaustion, fighting sleep, excessive stimulation, not quite being adjusted to life outside the cozy uterus, or even just as a means to relieve stress.”

Often, crying from colic is inconsolable, but limiting the baby’s stimuli and responding quickly to her crying with soothing touches can help.

Acid reflux, often mistaken as colic, usually appears in the first month of life “and is a medical condition that has a remedy. All infants have a very loose junction between the esophagus and stomach, and spitting up milk is very common. But (with reflux) …stomach acid instead of just milk comes up to the back of the throat, or perhaps the nose, causing pain,” Black offers, adding that some babies with acid reflux might never spit up milk at all. In such cases, “Signs of distress and crying usually occur when the stomach is empty and (the baby) has gnawing pain from a raw, irritated stomach lining. Watching your baby closely can give you clues regarding which is which.”

Dr. Christine Stahle of Promedica Physicians Arrowhead Pediatrics in Maumee clues parents in on what to watch for in cases of silent reflux. “Look for fussiness during and after feeds with arching, stiffening, or grimacing. Some babies will overeat for comfort and gain too much weight. Others dislike feeding and are slow to gain. Reflux is always potentially a contributing factor to colic or excessive crying. Another sign of reflux is loving to be upright after feeds and hating to be flat.”

Easing the Pain of Acid Reflux

For babies that spit up frequently, Dr. Black recommends parents try small, frequent feedings (two ounces every two hours instead of four ounces every four hours, etc.), and advises keeping your baby upright during and after meals. Probiotics may be taken by breast-feeding mothers or given directly to the baby to promote healthier digestion.
“If bottle-feedings may be thickened with 1 to 2 tablespoons of a multi grain cereal as heavier contents stay in the stomach longer,” Dr. Black advises.
If the above suggestions do not offer relief, prescription antacid medications can be obtained through your child’s pediatrician.

Acid Reflux Checklist

If you answer yes to one or more of the below, there’s a good chance your baby is suffering from acid reflux:

  • Does your baby arch backwards or stiffen his body?
  • Does your baby make a sour face or a chewy face that looks like she’s continually swallowing something, even between feedings?
  • Does your baby cough, gag or choke with feedings or between feedings?
  • Is your baby constantly hungry and gaining excessive weight? (Often babies try to remedy themselves with milk to soothe the pain in the stomach).
  • Does your baby often take a few sucks at the nipple, pull his or her head off, and then start again? (This often means the
    acid splash has caused a sensitive raw spot).
  • Does anyone in your family
    have acid reflux?