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6 Common Digestive Problems In Babies

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A baby not eating well, spitting food, vomiting, or having loose motions or constipation, could point towards a digestive system problem. It might make the baby feel uneasy and restless. Seek medical help if the baby is cranky or crying due to pain.

But what are the various digestive system issues that can affect a baby? In this MomJunction post, we tell you about the most common digestive system problems in babies, their causes, symptoms, and ways to manage.

Common Digestive Problems In Babies

1. Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) refers to the involuntary passage of gastric contents into the esophagus (food pipe). Infants are more prone to reflux, and it gets better as they grow in age. Various factors, including a milk-based diet and immature gastroesophageal junction, are responsible for higher rates of GER in babies (1).

When to see the doctor?

Reflux usually gets better as the baby grows, but do not hesitate to see your pediatrician if you see the following symptoms (2).

  • Vomiting
  • Reduced appetite or refusing feed
  • Weight loss or lack of weight gain
  • Rattling sound in the baby’s chest and back
  • Breathing difficulty during feeding
  • Choking spells

What you can do

The following changes can help manage the reflux better (2).

  • Hold the baby upright in your arms for 30 minutes after every feed. If comfortable, the baby can be held upright during feeding too.
  • Feed smaller amounts and feed often.
  • Burp your baby after every feed.
  • Don’t tie the baby’s diaper too tight.

2. Vomiting

Vomiting is defined as the forceful expulsion of gastric contents through the mouth and/or nose (3). Infants spit up small amounts during feeding, after feeding, or while burping. The amount expelled is typically less than 5-10ml. Rapid feeding, overfeeding, and swallowing of air are some of the causes of vomiting in babies. Repeated vomiting might indicate a gastrointestinal disorder. Contact your baby’s pediatrician to diagnose the cause (4).

When to see the doctor?

Vomiting can cause dehydration in babies (5).  You should see a doctor immediately in the following circumstances.

  • Vomiting very often
  • Vomiting green bile
  • Vomiting blood
  • Vomiting is followed by severe lethargy or inactivity
  • The baby displays signs of severe distress and crankiness after vomiting
  • Convulsions accompany or occur after or before vomiting

What you can do

Taking the following precautions might help a baby recover from vomiting. However, it should be done after discussing it with the pediatrician.

  • Hold the baby upright after feeding.
  • Give enough breast milk or formula to prevent dehydration.
  • Keep the baby cool and comfortable so that excess fluids are not lost due to sweating.

3. Diarrhea

Normal baby stools are loose and pasty. Newborns have frequent stools, often after every feed (6). Diarrhea is the passage of loose or watery stools occurring three or more times in 24 hours (7). Diarrhea can deplete the essential salt and water content in the body (8).

When to see the doctor?

Diarrhea causes dehydration in babies. Seek medical attention if you notice any signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, no tears, no urine, and fever (6).

What you can do

Take the following measures when your baby develops diarrhea (6).

  • Keep breastfeeding if you are still nursing the baby.
  • Do not give any OTC diarrhea medicines to your baby.
  • Ask your baby’s pediatrician if you can give electrolytes like Pedialyte or Infalyte to the baby. Do not use them without doctor’s consultation.
  • If the baby is on solids, give bland and easy-to-digest foods like bananas, crackers, toast, and cereals. Do not give food that is difficult to digest like fried foods, apple juice, milk, concentrated food juices, and foods high in sugar and fat.
  • Frequent stools can cause diaper rash. Change the baby’s diaper frequently, clean the baby’s bottom with water instead of wipes, give some diaper-free time, and apply a good diaper rash cream.
  • Wash your hands well after cleaning the baby. Diarrhea causing germs can spread the infection quickly.

4. Constipation

Constipation occurs when babies have hard stools or problems in passing stools (9). Although constipation is common in babies, it could be uncomfortable for them. Babies are not considered to be constipated if they pass soft stools (9).

When to see the doctor?

See the doctor immediately in the following scenarios.

  • The infant has not passed stools for more than three days in a row and is vomiting or irritable
  • Constipation in an infant younger than the age of two months
  • Blood in stools
  • The baby is holding bowel movements due to pain while passing stools

What you can do

Constipation can be frequent during infancy. But observing a few precautions can help the baby have a healthy bowel movement (9).

  • If the baby is exclusively breastfed, then keep breastfeeding at regular intervals.
  • If you have started giving pureed foods or juices, then give the baby extra juice or water in between the feeds to increase the water in the intestines.
  • For babies over two months of age, try two to four ounces (59 to 118ml) of juices made from fresh fruits like grapes, pears, apples, cherries, or prunes. Feed the juice in small sips throughout the day.
  • If the baby is on a solid diet, then feed high-fiber foods like peas, apricots, pears, spinach, bean, prune, peach, and plums, twice a day. Keep the infant hydrated as well.
  • Do not give any medicines or enema without speaking to the doctor.

5. Colic

Infantile colic is a benign problem in which an infant has outbursts of inconsolable crying for more than three hours per day, more than three days per week, for longer than three weeks (10). Colic usually begins at about the same time every day. The symptoms of colic may get worse in the evenings. The exact cause of colic is unknown, but it is commonly associated with digestive system problems. Gastrointestinal pain due to overfeeding, gas, and constipation are some of the few reasons. Babies with colic often stop crying after passing stool or gas (11).

When to see the doctor?

You should see a doctor if you are unable to manage colic or if the crying becomes severe. The doctor will ask a detailed medical history of the baby and do a thorough physical examination. You should see the doctor immediately if the baby starts crying in a different pitch or tone or if the crying is accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, and poor appetite (11).

What you can do

The following steps might help you manage the symptoms of colic (11).

  • If the baby is exclusively breastfed, then the mother could avoid eating foods that are often associated with colic in babies. A few examples are caffeine, chocolate, dairy products, and nuts.
  • Nursing mothers should avoid taking medicines without doctor’s consultation since medicines may also trigger colic.
  • If the baby seems to be colicky after consuming a specific formula, then speak to the doctor and switch to another brand.
  • Avoid overfeeding and feeding the baby too fast.
  • If the baby is crying inconsolably, then try to comfort the baby through swaddling, rocking, and distraction (11).

6. Gas

Gas is produced by bacteria in the intestines and can also be swallowed while eating or drinking (12). Babies swallow more air when they cry, and the excess gas gets trapped in the stomach, thus causing pain. Babies who crawl and cruise (walk slowly) might be able to release the gas easily.

When to see the doctor?

Gas usually resolves on its own. But if the baby seems uncomfortable and distressed, then you may see the doctor. The doctor might suggest some measures to help the baby feel better.

What you can do

The following measures might help the baby pass gas easily.

  • Give gentle tummy massage to the baby.
  • Let the baby have tummy time when awake.
  • Bicycle the baby’s legs while the infant lies on their back.
  • If the baby is bottle-fed, see to it that the baby does not suck excess air.

Tips To Improve The Baby’s Digestion

The following tips might help alleviate the baby’s digestive system issues while also improving the baby’s overall digestion.

  • Breastfeed the baby until they are six months old.
  • Burp the baby after every feed.
  • Give some tummy time every day when the baby is awake.
  • If you are lactating, avoid smoking, alcohol, and recreational drugs, which may increase the chance of causing colic in babies.
  • Give a gentle tummy massage to the baby. Lukewarm compresses with a towel or hot water bag might also help in digesting food.
  • When the baby starts solids, start with only one type of food at a time. Introduce other varieties after a few days once the baby is well-settled to the existing ones. It will help determine any food allergies and give the baby’s tummy enough time to grow accustomed to the new food.
  • Give a balanced diet to the baby when he/she starts eating solids. Fruits, vegetable broths, purees, and soups are good food options. A balanced diet can help prevent conditions such as constipation.
  • Avoid giving junk food and fried food to babies.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. When does a baby’s digestive system mature?

Digestive systems of most babies are matured enough to consume solids by the time they are six months old  (13).

  1. Which enzyme is responsible for the digestion of milk in infants?

Various enzymes in breast milk help in digestion. The important enzymes are (14):

  • Plasmin
  • Trypsin
  • Elastase
  • Cathepsin D
  • Pepsin
  • Chymotrypsin
  • Glutamyl endopeptidase-like enzyme
  • Proline endopeptidase

The most common health problems in infants are related to digestion. These problems tend to decrease as the baby grows older. See a doctor if you suspect any severe gastrointestinal disorders in your baby. Timely diagnosis and treatment help achieve optimal recovery in babies with digestive problems.

Do you have any experiences to share about digestive problems in babies? Let us know in the comment section below.

References:

1. Anna Rybak et al., Gastro-Esophageal Reflux in Children; U.S.National Library of Medicine
2. Gastrointestinal Problems; Stanford CHildren’s Health
3. Matthew Shields and Jenifer R. Lightdale, Vomiting in Children; Pediatrics in Review, AN OFFICIAL JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS
4. Deborah M. Consolini, Nausea and Vomiting in Infants and Children; MSD Manual
5. William J. Cochran, Overview of GI Disorders in Neonates and Infants; MERCK MANUAL
6. Diarrhea in infants; U.S. National LIbrary of Medicine
7. What is Diarrhoea and How to Prevent it; Rehydrate Organization
8. Diarrhoeal disease; World Health Organization
9. Constipation in infants and children; U.S.National Library of Medicine
10. JEREMY D. JOHNSON, KATHERINE COCKER, ELISABETH CHANG, Infantile Colic: Recognition and Treatment; American Family Physician
11. Colic and crying – self-care; U.S.National Library of Medicine
12. Colic and Gas, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
13. Healthy Eating for 6 to 24 month old children (1) Getting Started; Family Health Service, Hong Kong
14. Khaldi N et al., Predicting the important enzymes in human breast milk digestion.; U.S.National Library of Medicine

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