At the entrance to your stomach is a valve, which is a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES normaly closes as soon as food passes through it. If the LES doesn’t close all the way or if it opens too often, acid produced by your stomach can move up into your throat. This can cause symptoms such as a burning chest discomfort called heartburn.
Infant reflux occurs when food or milk pushes back up from a baby’s stomach, causing the baby to spit up. Sometimes called gastroesophageal reflux (GER), the condition is rarely serious and becomes less common as a baby gets older.
However, knowing that infant reflux is fairly common in newborns, especially in pre-term babies, certainly does not make it easier to see your baby in pain and discomfort.
Often confused with colic, the first sign of reflux is usually a baby that cries during and after a feed and shows signs of discomfort when they are trying to sleep. Not all babies spit up when they have reflux though, and this condition is called silent reflux. If your baby has silent reflux, the food only pushes up into the back of their throat, where it causes a burning sensation, irritation and inflammation.
If your baby is showing three or more of the symptoms below, it’s possible that they may be suffering from reflux and you need to make an appointment to visit the doctor.
What to look out for
- Spitting up shortly after a feed. As mentioned above, this symptom is not always present.
- Crying during or shortly after a feed.
- Seems to be crying for no obvious reason but it looks like they’re in pain.
- Difficulty sleeping on their back and prefers sleeping on their tummy.
- Blocked nose.
- Sour smelling breath.
- Wet sounding burps, cries or breathing.
- Weight loss or slow weight gain. Babies will only show this symptom if they regularly spit up. In fact, some babies over-feed to try and soothe pain so they may actualy gain a lot of weight.
How to reduce symptoms
- Keep your baby upright during a feed and for 20-30 minutes thereafter. This helps the milk stay down and not push back up the throat right away.
- Have your baby sleep at an incline – you can purchase special sleeping wedges or just place two bricks or some books under the feet of the cot.
- Let your baby sleep on their tummy, on your chest while you are sitting; again having the upper body elevated helps keep the milk down.
- Give smaller, but more frequent feeds. Babies with reflux usually overfeeds to try and soothe their throats but this is counter productive as the more milk they have in their stomach, the easier it becomes to spill over.
- Don’t wind your baby too vigourously. Air caught in the stomach will push milk back up as well.
- Use a thickening agent for their feeds. If you are breastfeeding you can express and add the thickening agent to the breast milk. Alternatively, if you are formula feeding, switch to a thicker brand, specially made for reflux. Most brands cater for reflux and the container will say “AR” for Anti-Regurgitation.
Your pediatrician may prescribe Nexiam, a medication which reduces stomach acid.
Another product that is often prescribed is infant Gaviscon. Infant Gaviscon is not to be used with thickening agents or infant milk preparations containing a thickening agent as this could lead to over-thickening of the stomach contents and cause constipation.
Unfortunately none of the tips above can cure your baby’s reflux but rather eleviate and prevent some of the symptoms. As your baby gets older the LES will mature and close up after meals and your baby will stop presenting the symptoms listed above.
Good luck, mums! It’s not easy having a baby with reflux but with patience and love you can help your precious little one to not only cope, but also eat and sleep normally.
Written by British mum Cathlen Fourie, owner of CF Communications and mum of two. Her youngest suffered from reflux from birth up to 5 months.
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