CONTEXT. Currently, thickened feeds are increasingly being used to treat infants with gastroesophageal reflux, driven in large part by the baby food industry. Previous meta-analyses have shown that although thickened formulas do not seem to reduce measurable reflux, they may reduce vomiting. However, because data are limited, there is still uncertainty regarding the use of thickening agents.

OBJECTIVE. Our goal was to systematically evaluate and update data from randomized, controlled trials on the efficacy and safety of thickened feeds for the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux in healthy infants.

METHODS. The Cochrane Library, Medline, Embase, and CINAHL databases and proceedings of the European and North American pediatric gastroenterology conferences (from 2000) were searched in May 2008; additional references were obtained from reviewed articles. Only randomized, controlled trials that evaluated thickened feeds used in infants for at least several days for the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux were considered for inclusion. Three reviewers independently performed data extraction by using standard data-extraction forms. Discrepancies between reviewers were resolved by discussion between all authors. Only the consensus data were entered.

RESULTS. Fourteen randomized, controlled trials with a parallel or crossover design, some with methodologic limitations, were included. Use of thickened formulas compared with standard formula significantly increased the percentage of infants with no regurgitation, slightly reduced the number of episodes of regurgitation and vomiting per day (assessed jointly or separately), and increased weight gain per day; it had no effect on the reflux index, number of acid gastroesophageal reflux episodes per hour, or number of reflux episodes lasting >5 minutes but significantly reduced the duration of the longest reflux episode of pH < 4. No definitive data showed that one particular thickening agent is more effective than another. No serious adverse effects were noted.

CONCLUSIONS. This meta-analysis shows that thickened food is only moderately effective in treating gastroesophageal reflux in healthy infants.

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