In most cases, a baby throwing up is not due to a serious sickness. However, unusual or persistent vomiting can indicate an underlying issue.
Usually, vomiting is short-lived and stops after a few hours. However, severe or prolonged vomiting can cause dehydration, which can be more problematic than the vomiting itself. If left untreated, dehydration can be life threatening.
It is important to differentiate between a baby vomiting and just spitting-up milk. Spit-up usually happens soon after feeding, often accompanied by a burp. Spit-up looks like milky-white dribble.
Read on to learn about why a baby might throw up, treatments, and when to see a doctor.
Reasons why a baby might vomit repeatedly include:
Typically, when a baby has infant reflux, they will not vomit forcefully.
Infant reflux occurs when the muscles leading to the stomach are too relaxed, allowing food to travel back up the esophagus.
Often, the stomach muscles strengthen, and infant reflux improves by itself.
To help a baby with infant reflux, try:
- thickening the milk or formula with small amounts of baby cereal (if recommended by your pediatrician)
- feeding the infant little and often, and avoid overfeeding
- burping the baby regularly
- positioning the infant in a safe, upright position after feeding
According to the American Family Physician, gastroenteritis is a common condition among young children. Harmful micro-organisms entering the stomach usually cause gastroenteritis.
Infants explore objects by putting them in their mouths, which means viral droplets can easily enter their bodies. Babies can also develop gastroenteritis from consuming harmful bacteria on food, in the same way that adults can.
A baby may continue to vomit until the body has rid itself of the offending poison. It usually stops after a few hours. It may take a few days for a baby to recover fu
After prolonged vomiting, keep an eye out for signs of dehydration.
A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly treats certain foods as a threat.
When weaning a baby off of breast milk or formula, it is important to introduce new foods gradually over a few days to determine if the baby has any allergies to foods, such as milk, soy, gluten, nuts, or fish.
The most common symptoms of a food allergy are:
- an itchy rash
- swelling of the face
- itching inside the mouth, throat or ears
Food allergies vary in severity, ranging from mild to very severe. The most severe reaction is anaphylaxis.
A baby with anaphylaxis will have difficulty breathing properly and may become drowsy or lose consciousness. Call 911 immediately if a baby has these symptoms.
Pyloric stenosis is an uncommon condition that some babies are born with. According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pyloric stenosis is less common in non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic Asian babies.
Doctors usually diagnose it within a few weeks of birth.
Between the stomach and small intestine, a muscular valve (pylorus) holds food in the stomach until it is ready for digestion. In pyloric stenosis, this valve thickens and swells, blocking food from reaching the small intestine.
Babies with pyloric stenosis will vomit forcefully, urinate less frequently, and have fewer bowel movements. A baby with pyloric stenosis will require surgery.
If a baby is throwing up severely for more 12 hours, a parent or caregiver must take them to a doctor for examination.
Meningitis can affect anyone, but it is most common between infancy and early adulthood. It is an infection of the protective linings that surround the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis develops quickly and can cause life-threatening blood poisoning, or septicemia, or brain damage.
Vomiting is usually one of the first symptoms of meningitis, along with:
- fever over 37.5 °C (99.5 °F)
- a severe headache
- aching limbs
An infant may be unable to indicate they are experiencing physical pain, so watch for changes in behavior. For example, an infant with a headache may try to touch their head more often than usual.
Other symptoms that usually appear later are:
- blotchy rash that does not fade when pressing a glass onto it
- a stiff neck
- a dislike of bright lights
- drowsiness or unresponsiveness
If a baby has meningitis symptoms, they will appear very distressed, and a parent or caregiver may be unable to console them.
The Meningitis Research Foundation encourage people to trust their instincts and seek medical help immediately if they think a child has meningitis. A rash does not always appear, so do not wait for it before seeking help.
Intussusception is a condition that occurs when one segment of intestine ‘telescopes’ inside another, causing a blockage. It may follow a virus, which causes the lining of the intestine to swell.
Intussusception is common in children between three and 36 months and occurs in around 1 in 1,200 children. Some studies suggest that rates may be higher in black and Hispanic infants than in white infants.
- severe, crampy pain that comes and goes
- rectal bleeding (red, jelly-like stools)
If a baby has abdominal pain, they may draw their legs up to their chest and experience severe distress. Seek medical help as soon as possible.
Dehydration is a common side effect of vomiting. It occurs when the body loses more fluid than it takes in. Dehydration upsets the balance of salts and sugar in the body and stops it functioning correctly. Symptoms of dehydration include fewer wet nappies, crying without tears, and a dry mouth.
According to the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), the signs of dehydration in a baby are:
- dark yellow and strong-smelling urine
- dizzy or lightheadedness
- feeling tired
- dry mouth, lips, and eyes
- urinating little and less than four times a day
- soft spot on the head that sinks inwards
- cold and blotchy-looking hands and feet
- few or no tears when crying
- sunken eyes
If a baby becomes dehydrated, give them regular sips of water. Do not offer them fruit juice or fizzy drinks as they do not help and may prolong unpleasant symptoms of gastroenteritis, such as diarrhea.
For breastfed babies, offer them breast milk frequently, as it contains electrolytes that prevent dehydration.
For formula-fed babies, try offering lactose-free formula. If a baby has diarrhea, lactose can make it worse.
In most cases, a baby will recover by themselves after throwing up. Other treatments for vomiting will depend on the underlying cause.
Most of the time, when a baby throws up, it is not necessary to see a doctor.
If gastroenteritis triggers sickness or reflux, a baby will seem themselves again when the vomiting subsides. If this is the case, treat them at home.
You should contact your doctor if a baby:
- vomits forcefully after feedings
- has been unable to keep liquids down for 8 hours
- has vomited consistently for 12 hours or more
- is dehydrated
- produces green vomit or it contains blood
- if vomit or stool contains blood
Go to the ED immediately if a baby is in severe discomfort, floppy, or less responsive than usual.
It is very common for babies to throw up, especially in the first year of life. Symptoms usually improve fairly quickly.
However, dehydration happens quickly and can lead to more severe problems. Caregivers should try to replace a baby’s lost fluids as soon as possible.
Sometimes vomiting is due to a more serious condition. If parents or caregivers are concerned by symptoms, they should seek medical help.