Around 50% of infants will suffer at least one functional GI disorders before six months of age2-3. The most common one is reflux (which affects around 30% of infants), followed by colic (around 20% of infants) and constipation (around 15%)2. It is common for two or more functional GI disorders to coexist in the same infant3.
While individual estimates of prevalence vary due to different study designs, it is clear that, together, the functional GI disorders affect a significant section of the population during the most vulnerable years.
Functional GI disorders are divided into seven recognised categories1:
Infant reflux — persistent regurgitation of stomach contents
Infant rumination syndrome — habitual regurgitation for the purpose of self-stimulation
Cyclic vomiting syndrome — episodes of prolonged vomiting
Infant colic — persistent crying
Functional diarrhoea — frequent passing of unformed stools
Infant dyschezia — painful straining and crying before successful or unsuccessful passage of soft stools
Functional constipation — stool retention
The signs and symptoms of functional GI disorders are distressing for child and parent alike. This can lead to considerable social consequences, as parents struggle to cope with their unhappy infant.
Research shows that children who experienced functional GI disorders as infants are more likely to suffer from abdominal pain throughout childhood5-8, have sleeping or behavioural problems7-11, and be perceived as fragile by their mothers12.
Parents of children with functional GI disorders are more likely to have a poor quality of life9-13 and suffer from tiredness, fatigue or postnatal depression14-15. They are also more likely to give up breastfeeding at an earlier stage16 or make multiple changes to their child’s formula17.
As parents desperately seek some comfort for their distressed child, the costs inevitably mount up.
Home remedies, over-the-counter remedies, medical consultations, prescribed treatments and lost income due to time taken off work all contribute to a total economic impact that has been estimated at £72.3 million per year in England18.
This “conservative estimate” (outpatient costs were excluded, for example) includes around £50 million of costs to the NHS. Parents also spent £13.6 million on over-the-counter colic medicines with no evidence of efficacy18.
Earlier studies estimated that the NHS spends around £65m each year to help parents manage infant crying and sleeping problems in the first 12 weeks of life 19.
In the US the total national cost for emergency department visits due to constipation alone has been estimated at $1.6bn20. Infants account for the highest proportion of these visits.
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