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Common Infant Digestive Problems

Is It Something to Worry About?

You know you're a new parent when discussions about spit up, reflux, and the contents of baby's diaper become common dinnertime fodder! If you're a new mom or dad, worrying about your baby's digestive health is more common than you think. Here's the poop on some common tummy troubles that babies face -- and how you can tell when baby's problems are serious enough to consult a physician.

Reflux

Sometimes it takes weeks for the normal squeezing pattern of the stomach to get into rhythm. Until that happens, milk can sit in her stomach longer than normal and then come back up. This is called reflux.

When to worry: Most cases of reflux disappear once baby is between 4 and 12 months old. However, the following symptoms may indicate that your child is having problems:

  • Poor feeding
  • Frequent hiccups
  • Congestion and breathing problems

What to do: If your baby shows any of the above symptoms, her pediatrician may recommend treating her with medication. Otherwise, you can greatly help matters by burping her often (after every ounce of formula or after every couple of minutes of breastfeeding) and keeping her upright for 20 minutes after each feeding.

Vomiting

The most common cause of vomiting in babies is an infection of the intestinal tract by any virus that happens to be going around. The illness usually starts with a sudden bout of vomiting, often with fever or diarrhea (not necessarily in that order). Most infections run their course in two or three days, although a child's tummy often isn't up to snuff for days after.

When to worry: If you notice a drop-off in the normal number of wet diapers and a shortage of saliva, your baby may be dehydrated.

What to do: If your baby won't take -- or can't keep down -- breast milk or formula, offer her a tablespoonful of an electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte or Rehydralyte every 15 minutes or so. Call your pediatrician if she's vomiting up the solution.

In rare instances, vomiting in infancy can indicate that baby was born with, or has developed, a malformation of the digestive tract. One common condition is called pyloric stenosis, which occurs when the muscle at the exit of the stomach thickens, preventing milk from passing through it. No one knows what causes it, but it usually shows up in babies between 3 and 5 weeks of age. The telltale sign of pyloric stenosis is projectile vomiting -- vomiting that's forceful enough to shoot across the room. If your baby is diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, usually by an ultrasound, he'll need an operation to open the blockage at the outlet of his stomach.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea in babies is usually caused by a virus. One type, rotavirus, is responsible for most cases of diarrhea in kids. Rotavirus usually shows up during the winter in kids between 6 and 24 months. Once rotavirus takes hold, the only thing you can do is make sure baby stays hydrated. Your pediatrician would need to perform a test on baby's stool in order to make a definite diagnosis.

When to worry: If your baby has diarrhea that just won't go away for more than two to three weeks and she lacks fever or cold symptoms, she could have a milk allergy. In addition to watery stools, allergic babies may be colicky, suffer from cramping when they have bowel movements, have small amounts of blood and mucus in their stool, and develop a rash.

What to do: Most allergic babies get better once put on a hypoallergenic formula such as Nutramigen or Alimentum.

Constipation

Constipation -- or hard stool -- is a common problem, especially after a baby starts eating cereals. Another common time for babies to develop constipation is around their first birthday. It's no coincidence that this is also when most parents start children on whole milk. Too much milk can lead to sticky, claylike stools that present a real problem for some toddlers.

What to do: If you notice that your child's stools are firm and dry, or he's having difficulty passing them, try cutting out rice cereal for a day or two to see if that does the trick. If you suspect milk is the culprit, try limiting your child's intake to 16 ounces per day.

Reporting by Dr. Bryan Vartabedian

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.