As a mom, there is nothing that breaks your heart more than seeing your little love in pain and feeling helpless to make it stop. So if you suspect your baby is suffering from acid reflux, you may feel slightly relieved to know you’re not alone – more than half of all babies are estimated to experience reflux symptoms to some extent. So it’s almost a given that learning to manage reflux is likely to become an essential part of your newborn care.
Also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), this troublesome condition can cause discomfort. Thankfully, there are plenty of useful tips and natural remedies to alleviate your baby’s symptoms and help you both finally get a good night’s sleep.
Get comfy – we’re about to deep-dive into everything you need to know about what causes reflux symptoms, how you can tell if your baby has it, and what the hell to do about it if they do.
What causes acid reflux in babies?
Immature digestive system
It’s a common misconception that acid reflux is caused by high levels of stomach acidity, but that’s not the case. It’s actually caused when stomach acid makes its way back up to the esophagus, which is what leads to many of the major symptoms we’ll discuss further down.
Normally when swallowing, the esophagus opens and squeezes food down into the stomach, where food is then mixed with acid and digested. If the esophagus is doing its job, it closes and stops the food from coming back up.
Some infants are born with an immature lower esophageal sphincter (the bit that opens and closes to stop food coming back up), and this can cause the contents of the stomach to flow back up, resulting in that spit-up or vomit you’re now wearing on your shirt. Lovely.
Most babies will experience some level of spitting up during their first year, referred to as gastrointestinal reflux (GER), with no other symptoms. For some, this constant regurgitating can damage the esophageal lining, and this may cause your poor little babe to experience discomfort along with some other symptoms.
Allergy to milk protein
In some cases, an allergy to milk protein, or, more specifically, cow’s milk, can trigger or worsen reflux symptoms. There are some other symptoms specific to milk protein allergies that you should look out for to determine whether this is the cause of your baby’s reflux.
Some (but not all) signs include:
- Skin reactions like itchiness, redness or rashes, swelling around the mouth, eyes or face, redness around the bottom, or eczema.
- Gastrointestinal reactions like swelling of the lips, tongue, inside the mouth, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood or mucus in your baby’s poo, or constipation.
- Respiratory reactions like an itchy nose, sneezing, congestion, coughing or a runny nose, wheezing or shortness of breath.
- Refusing to feed, tiredness or colic.
Important: If your baby shows signs of struggling to breathe, goes floppy, or if you think they are having an anaphylactic reaction, call an ambulance and seek medical attention immediately.
Other factors that contribute to reflux in babies
There are a few other factors that can exacerbate this problem, including when babies are born prematurely, the fact that our sweet little blobs are lying flat on their backs for a good portion of their early months, and their all-liquid diet.
There are also several other, rarer causes for acid reflux in babies including development issues with the digestive system so if you do feel your baby is showing symptoms of GERD and you’re concerned, visit your family doctor for a proper diagnosis (much more reliable results than you’ll get panic-searching Google, we promise!).
What are the symptoms of acid reflux in babies?
Firstly, it’s important to know that acid reflux in babies is not just spitting up – that’s actually just one part of it. In fact, as we mentioned earlier, spitting up after feeding is completely normal and not necessarily reflux at all. If your baby does have reflux though, it can make them feel uncomfortable and unwell, so it’s important to know what other symptoms to look for.
In addition to frequent spitting up or vomiting, acid reflux can cause a range of symptoms from general discomfort and irritability to weight loss. But before you run to the bathroom to panic-weigh your confused babe, let’s review some more symptoms and what you need to know about them.
1. Spitting up
One of the first signs of acid reflux is if your baby spits up frequently. We’ll say it again though: this is pretty common in young babies so it could just be that yours is prone to a cheeky vomit after each meal (unlucky).
If spitting up is accompanied by other more severe symptoms, like projectile vomiting after every meal, this could be a sign of something more serious. If your baby is unable to swallow without coughing or choking, this could also point to acid reflux.
Now, just to make things more complicated (because, of course), there is also another form of acid reflux known as silent reflux, where babies don’t spit up much, if at all.
So, in a nutshell: if your baby spits up after eating, they might have reflux. But they also might not, and if your baby doesn’t spit up after eating, they also might have reflux. So how the hell do you know if they have either silent or not-so-silent reflux? Keep an eye out for other symptoms, such as….
Another common symptom of reflux is if your baby shows signs of discomfort. We know, it’s basically impossible to know exactly why a baby is crying, but there are some things you can look for that will help you determine whether they’re experiencing physical discomfort or pain.
If your baby is resistant to lying down on their back, if they arch their back often, or if they cry after they spit up (which should be a gross but pretty painless thing for them to do), then you’ll know they aren’t feeling quite right in their little body. And, if the cause is acid reflux, these symptoms will usually be more pronounced after feeding.
GERD can also cause irritability in babies. Take note if they cry during or after feeding, or if they become fussy when it’s time to eat. Babies suffering from reflux have been known to refuse the boob or the bottle. In some instances, acid reflux can also contribute to sleep disturbances, and we know ain’t nobody got time for that!
4. Failure to gain weight
Between refusing to take their food, the discomfort feeding causes them, and the frequent spitting up and vomiting many of them experience, babies with acid reflux are more likely to gain weight at a slower rate than normal.
In the early days, the weight of your baby is a good indicator of their health, and at such a crucial point in their development, slow weight gain can be a red flag that something’s not quite right. So, if they don’t seem to be growing at the normal rate and are showing other symptoms, it’s time to reach out to your family doctor or pediatrician for help.
5. Trouble breathing
Trouble breathing is one of the most worrying (but also the rarest) symptoms of acid reflux, and it’s also experienced by adults with the same condition. In young children and babies, this often looks like wheezing, apnoea, or shortness of breath, but could also cause frequent hiccups (cute) and sour breath (not so cute).
We mentioned this earlier: if your baby is experiencing trouble breathing, seek medical attention immediately. A doctor should also be able to tell you if their breathing difficulties are a result of acid reflux or a separate issue. If they are directly related to reflux, your baby might have to undergo a routine surgical procedure.
How long does acid reflux last in babies?
This fun-filled phase usually peaks at 3-4 months and starts to settle by the time your baby is around 18 months old, although may last up to 24 months. In some rare instances, acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease can persist in older babies and toddlers, and have longer term health impacts. If your baby continues to show symptoms beyond 18 months, you should consider speaking to your family doctor to make sure there isn’t a more severe underlying health condition.
How is acid reflux in babies diagnosed?
If your baby starts refusing feeds, or you’re struggling to manage their symptoms, it’s time to think about getting an official diagnosis from a doctor. You’ll get a better idea of how severe the issue really is, and expert medical advice on whether there’s anything else you could be doing to help alleviate the symptoms. Hey, at the very least they’ll tell you what you already know and you’ll feel validated in whatever methods you’ve been using to help your baby.
During your appointment, you’ll be asked to describe your baby’s symptoms and medical history, so it will be useful if you’ve thought ahead and written down any relevant information. This will usually be sufficient for a diagnosis, but your doctor may need to run some additional tests. This might help them eliminate other potential causes for your baby’s reflux symptoms.
Some common tests your doctor might request include:
- Blood tests
- Ultrasounds or X-rays
- The insertion of a probe into your baby’s lower esophageal sphincter
- Upper endoscopy to collect tissue samples from your baby’s digestive tract.
Once a diagnosis has been determined, your doctor will usually recommend some simple lifestyle changes that you can implement at home, and in rarer cases, might want to prescribe medicine, like proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers.
Natural remedies to soothe your baby’s acid reflux
Your doctor will likely recommend some changes you can implement to your baby care at home to help manage the symptoms.
Keep your baby upright
By keeping your baby elevated often, gravity will do the work for you, making it harder for acid to make its way back up the esophagus. We know, easier said than done, considering babies usually don’t start sitting up on their own until they’re six to nine months old.
If you can, feed your baby in an upright position, and keep them elevated for 30 minutes afterward – it’s time to work that baby carrier! Plus, think of all the things you could do with those two free hands. It’s a win-win.
Note: You might be tempted to use a sleep positioner to elevate your baby while they sleep but these products do not align with SIDS guidelines for safe sleep.
Burp them more often
Yes we know, babies feed a lot and you have little spare time as it is, but burping your baby after every 1-2 ounces, or every time they pull away from the boob might be the difference between your baby waking at 3am or sleeping until 5am and holy sh*t yes, we’ll take it.
If you are breastfeeding, your doctor might recommend you make changes to your diet, for example, reducing or giving up caffeine, which can contribute to reflux. They might also recommend an elimination diet to determine whether you are eating any foods that are triggering the reflux symptoms for your baby.
The good news for breastfeeding mamas is that breast milk itself doesn’t cause the same reaction as cow milk-based formulas for babies who are sensitive to milk protein (phew!). In fact, breastfed babies have been shown to have less severe reflux, possibly because breastmilk leaves the stomach much faster than formula, making it less likely to back up into the esophagus.
If you are a formula-feeding mama and you’re now panicking about how you’re going to feed your hangry little human, there’s good news for you too! There are non-cow milk formulas you can try such as hydrolyzed formulas and soy-based formulas. Check with your pediatrician before switching formulas to make sure you’re using the right one for your babe.
Research has also shown that massaging babies with GERD has a positive impact on symptoms. It also showed that massage helped reduce cortisol levels, which helped them sleep better – sign us up!
One popular homeopathic remedy often used to alleviate colic, gas and reflux symptoms is the use of gripe waters, such as Colic Calm. Many parents have reported this over-the-counter treatment to have had a positive impact on their baby’s digestion and easing discomfort. It might be worth a go if you’re looking for something to try before considering harsher prescription medications.
Reminder: the information included in this article does not replace medical advice, so if you’re ever unsure, pay a visit to your doctor or family physician.