The Dreaded Reflux
Have you ever heard of or had heartburn? Have you ever heard of babies with such bad heartburn they cry and cry and cry and cry? These babies are so uncomfortable, miserable and unhappy. The baby’s condition can be very distressing for parents, particularly first time mothers, who think the reason their baby is crying is their fault. Either from not enough milk or they are ‘doing something wrong’. The mothers feel a lack of confidence that they’re unable to master the basic skill of settling their own baby. The new mums tend to seek help from lactation consultants, other professionals, as they believe that it must be a breast-feeding issue such as attachment to the breast or not enough milk. Most commonly it’s the dreaded reflux!
A common scenario begins with the extended family (or friends), all with good intent, constantly “advising” the new mum that her baby has ‘colic’ or ‘bad wind’. The family member will then return from the pharmacy, spending a lot of money on over the counter medicines with what claim to be “definite cures” for a crying baby with colic or wind. Unfortunately, none of these work. In fact, it gets worse unless treated properly by the GP or paediatrician.
Those of you that have had heartburn will confirm its constant presence and discomfort. It’s also very uncomfortable and you can’t get rid of it! It’s worse for a newborn baby. Babies can’t tell you what’s wrong and because they cry all the time, mothers feel inadequate, guilty and a failure.
Most people have a theory on why the baby is crying. However, the reality is that at the top of the stomach there is a sphincter that keeps food down when we swallow. The stomach also has acid juices that are required to help break down the food to be digested. Some newborn babies have a floppy or immature sphincter and when some milk comes up, the acid in the stomach comes up too, causing burning and heartburn.
A baby with reflux struggles and fusses at the breast, they arch their back and move their head around when feeding; the mother often seeing this as breast refusal. The baby cries and when they finally fall asleep and are placed into the cot, within five minutes they start crying again, inconsolable until fed again…and the process starts again.
Having a baby with reflux is very distressing for everyone: the mum, the dad, the extended family and most of all the baby. The once calm and sleeping baby has turned into a baby that will not drink well at the breast, will not sleep and cries most of the day. The baby with reflux also loves being held upright so you find yourself walking around all day, twenty hours a day…a shower seems a thing of the past! The symptoms can start as early as two to three weeks after the birth and can be diagnosed by your maternal and child health nurse, GP or paediatrician.
At about week three, it’s possible to diagnose if your baby has gastric reflux. At this time, I receive phone calls from women saying, “I can’t stop my baby crying”, “I can’t settle my baby”, and “he will not lie down on the floor or in the cot”, “there is something wrong with my breast milk” or “he has such bad wind”. When new mums go to mother’s group and see other babies on the ground playing happily and other mothers’ breastfeeding their babies with ease it makes them feel sad, upset and even feel like they are failing as a mother. Mothers of reflux babies however, are limited to walking around and holding their baby upright. This is so difficult for new mums.
If this is happening to you, you need to get some professional help. Gastric reflux can be treated. See a general practitioner or a specialist and talk to them about the signs and symptoms and what treatment is available.
Common signs include the baby being unable to lie on their back without crying, waking up crying, or screaming suddenly and fussing at the breast or bottle. Often a baby wakes up from a deep sleep screaming. A common sign is after the baby burps their face may look like they have eaten something they don’t like…that are because of the acid in their stomach refluxing up from the stomach. It tastes awful.
Often babies with reflux vomit. Some do not vomit, others cough and others just cry. It’s not a large amount of vomit and it’s not all the milk the baby has just had, but it will be enough to make you feel concerned. Babies with reflux seem generally unhappy; however, they are well. Babies with reflux do not always lose weight; in fact, some actually gain a lot of weight, as feeding is a comfort for them.
If you ever have concerns about your baby, please seek medical advice. Make an appointment with your MCH nurse, your GP or paediatrician if your baby is crying all the time. In most communities there are nurses who can help you become educated on the development and progress of your baby.
First, it’s important to have reflux diagnosed by a medical professional. Your doctor will prescribe medicine and the medicine can usually take from two to seven days to work. Often an antacid is used in conjunction with the medicine initially.
No medicine should be given to your baby without having a physical check by a doctor.
Often new mums think it’s their fault, but it’s not. The baby just needs a little bit of help to settle his tummy. He will get better, and the reflux does go away. But it is very, very hard for new parents, because you’re tired and your baby is unsettled and the crying seems to never end.