When Your Child Needs an Upper GI Series

An upper GI (gastrointestinal) series is an X-ray exam of the upper digestive tract. This includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). The exam is used to find problems. These include narrowing (strictures) or sores in the lining of the GI tract (ulcers). Barium contrast or another kind of contrast material is used during the exam. This is a liquid that makes organs show more clearly on X-rays. During an upper GI series with small bowel follow-through, the healthcare provider also checks the small intestine. An upper GI series takes about  60 minutes. An upper GI series with small bowel follow-through takes about 3 hours.

Before the exam

  • Don’t give your child anything to eat or drink 4 to 6 hours before the exam. Newborns and infants may be allowed to drink up to 2 to 4 hours before the exam. Ask your child's healthcare provider for instructions.

  • Follow all other instructions given by the provider.

Let the technologist know

For your child’s safety, let the technologist know if your child:

  • Has allergies

  • Has had surgery

  • Has any health problems

  • Is taking any medicines

During the exam

An upper GI series is done by a radiologist. This is a doctor trained to use X-rays for treatment or diagnosis. A radiology technologist may also help with the exam.

  • You can stay with your child in the X-ray room. You’ll be given a lead apron to wear for your safety. Pregnant women aren’t allowed in the X-ray room.

  • Your child stands against the X-ray table during the first part of the exam. After barium contrast is given, your child then lies down. Infants or toddlers lie down during the entire exam.

  • An X-ray of your child’s upper GI tract is taken.

  • Then your child is given barium contrast to drink. The barium may come in different flavors for a more pleasant taste. Babies may drink the barium from a baby bottle. Toddlers may drink it from a sippy cup. If your child can’t drink the barium, a nasogastric (NG) tube is used. This is a soft, flexible tube that’s put through your child’s nose into the stomach. It sends barium down the upper GI tract.

  • Movement affects the quality of the results. If your child can’t stay still, they may be gently held in place.

  • Your child may also be given fizzy crystals to swallow. These make air build up in the stomach. Your child must resist the urge to burp or vomit, or more fizzy crystals or barium must be taken.

  • Live X-ray images (fluoroscopy) are viewed on a screen as the barium moves through your child’s upper GI tract.

  • Your child may need to roll over, shift positions, or take deep breaths and hold them while X-rays are taken.

Child standing in flouroscopy scanner sipping a bottle of liquid through a straw while a healthcare provider adjusts the machine.
During an upper GI series, your child is given barium contrast to drink.

After the exam

  • There’s a short wait while the X-rays are reviewed. More X-rays will need to be taken if results are unclear.

  • Unless told not to, your child can go back to his or her normal routine and diet right away. But make sure your child drinks plenty of water. Water helps ease constipation that may occur after the exam.

  • Your child’s stool will look chalky white or light for 1 to 2 days. This is due to the barium in the contrast. If no barium is passed in 24 hours, call the healthcare provider.

  • The radiologist may talk about early results with you after the exam. A report is given to your child’s healthcare provider. They will follow up with full results.

Helping your child get ready

You can help your child by preparing him or her in advance. How you do this depends on your child’s needs.

  • Explain that the radiologist is checking for problems in the upper GI tract (throat and stomach). Use short and simple terms to describe the exam. Younger children have shorter attention spans. So do this shortly before the exam. Older children can be given more time to understand the exam in advance. 

  • As best you can, describe how the exam will feel. Your child may not like the taste of the barium contrast. Your child may also feel full and need to pass gas.

  • Let your child ask questions.

  • Use play when helpful. This can include role-playing with a child’s favorite toy or object. It may help older children to see pictures of what happens during the exam. 

Possible risks and complications of an upper GI series

  • Radiation exposure from X-rays

  • Constipation or bowel obstruction due to retained barium

  • Allergic reaction to barium such as hives, itching, or wheezing

© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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