Doctors often label common symptoms in babies, such as spitting up and crying, as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), however, frequent use of this diagnosis can result in overuse of medication.

When parents are told that their child has GERD, they are more likely to want medicine, even if their doctor says it won’t help.

The finding came from new research conducted by experts from the University of Michigan and the University of Missouri and was published in the journal Pediatrics.

Drugs used for the treatment of GERD are among the most widely used medications in infants less than one year old, even though parents are told that the medicine will most likely be ineffective.

Tarini, an investigator in U-M’s Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit, said:

“As doctors we need to appreciate that the words we use when talking with patients and parents have power – the power to make a normal process seem like a disease. As pediatricians, our job is to make sick children healthy, not to make healthy children sick.”

The investigation took place in a pediatric clinic in Michigan where 175 parents were given surveys about how they would respond to a hypothetical clinical scenario – their one-month-old was spitting up and crying frequently but was otherwise in good health.

The volunteers were given one of 4 hypothetical scenarios:

  • Their baby had GERD and available treatment was ineffective.
  • Their baby had GERD and was not given any information on treatment.
  • No disease label was given in the context of medication being unsuccessful.
  • No disease label or drug information was given

Parents whose child was diagnosed with GERD wanted to give their infant medication, even when they were advised that it was ineffective.

Parents not given a disease label wanted a prescription for their child only when the physician did not talk about the effectiveness of the medication.

Over-diagnosis of this disease can make a medical condition out of ordinary behavior, said Laura Scherer, lead researchers and assistant professor of psychological science in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri.

“The growing digestive systems of an infant can be finicky and cause the child to regurgitate. The discomfort can cause the infant to cry, but it is not necessarily a disease,” explained Scherer.

This report can teach parents that a disease label may make them want treatment for their infant, no matter whether the medicine is effective or not, she said.

Parents should listen to their doctor’s suggestions, which means that they might need to accept a doctor’s reasoning why a baby’s crying and spitting up may be normal.

Scherer concluded:

“Unnecessary use of medication is costly. Especially for families without insurance, the over-use of medications can be a needless expense. In addition, the long-term side effects of the medication frequently prescribed to children diagnosed with GERD have not been fully studied, although the medication has been correlated to slightly higher rates of pneumonia.”

A surgical procedure to treat GERD in kids was shown to be ineffective in a previous study. Over 60% of the children who underwent surgical fundoplication to control gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) had recurring symptoms of the disease months after the procedure.

Written by Sarah Glynn