Does your baby fight the breast? Or arch her back regularly? Or scream if you lay him on his back? Does she projectile vomit after meals (or even spit up a little more than normal)? Or does his breath smell sour? Then you may be experiencing the troublesome effects of reflux in babies.
Reflux in Babies—I’ve been there
Soon after our daughter Paloma was born, I could tell she wasn’t comfortable. She always had a reddish hue to her skin and she was very stiff. Every time I tried to bend her legs or arms, she would fight me.
She never spit up, so I didn’t think it was baby reflux, but she was gassy and got hiccups a lot.
Since I was nursing, I gave up dairy in hopes that it would help. I also noticed that she liked sitting up and even sleeping in reclining chairs versus flat on her back. But it wasn’t until I happened to smell her breath, that I suspected reflux in babies. It was sour…. huge red flag.
What are baby reflux symptoms?
While symptoms may vary, here are some main ones to look out for:
- Crying or uncomfortable after eating
- Coughing or choking regularly
- Refusing the breast/bottle
- Arching back after eating
- Resistance to laying on back
- Gassy and/or foamy bowel movements
- Colicky, unhappy or seemingly uncomfortable in body
- Wheezing, apena or breathing difficulties (respiratory infections)
- Sour breath, burps and hiccups
- Throwing up, usually projectile vomiting (not with silent reflux*)
- Failure to thrive or failure to gain weight
What causes acid reflux in infants?
First, let’s ground ourselves in this truth… all babies have some level of reflux. This is because their entire digestive tract is more immature than older children. The sphincter muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach is often undeveloped and opens regularly, allowing stomach acid to flow back up the throat causing burning and pain.
As their brain and nervous system develops, they can have some weakness in their vagus nerve function, which controls bowel mobility and digestion. It also doesn’t help that we often put babies on their back, whether for play or sleep, and this can only exacerbate symptoms. For some children, their reflux will be more severe or they may be more sensitive to the effects, whatever the reason, we want to help alleviate their discomfort.
How is reflux in babies diagnosed?
As I started to research what could be wrong with my girl, I discovered that there are actually two forms of baby reflux: acid reflux and silent acid reflux. While acid reflux in infants usually results in regular projectile vomiting and intense crying, silent reflux is more subtle. Sour breath, hiccups, and physical stiffness or discomfort are more typical symptoms. Thankfully, most doctors will diagnose acid reflux or silent acid reflux in infants by persistent symptoms. However, some doctors may suggest the following tests:
Blood tests. Some doctors will look at various blood markers to see if the eating issues stem from something else like anemia or an infection.
Ultrasound. A device that uses high frequency sound waves to create an image of the upper GI tract looking for obstructions or abnormalities.
Barium swallow or upper GI test. The baby is given barium to drink, which coats the esophagus, stomach, and upper part of small intestine. Barium is a chalky white liquid that helps to highlight any obstructions or abnormalities in an X-Ray.
pH probe. A long, thin tube with a probe at the tip will be inserted through the mouth and positioned in the lower part of esophagus. It will measure the baby’s stomach acid levels and determine if there are any breathing problems as well. This is a very invasive test and baby will have to be hospitalized to administer.
Upper GI endoscopy. Another invasive test which requires hospital stay. It uses an endoscope to look directly inside the upper GI tract and detect any issues.
Because most of these tests are invasive or involve some negative side effects (ever tried to find a vein on a baby?!), it might be best, with your doctor’s approval, to start treating based on your baby’s acid reflux symptoms and see if he improves.
Conventional approach to acid reflux in infants
Of course, some mainstream medical doctors would recommend prescription medications to decrease or neutralize your baby’s stomach acid, and thereby reduce some of the initial symptoms of baby reflux. Examples would include:
- Antacids such as Mylanta and Maalox
- Histamine-2 blockers such as Axid, Pepcid, Tagamet, or Zantac
- Or Proton-Pump Inhibitors such as Nexium, Prilosec, or Prevacid
Ironically, many infants with baby reflux actually aren’t producing enough stomach acid and are struggling due to a weaker digestive fire. By giving these drugs, you may have temporary relief but it could set up a bigger, long-term problem.
In fact, acid-blocking medications are not recommended in cases of uncomplicated infant reflux. And, otherwise healthy children taking these medications may face an increased risk of certain intestinal and respiratory infections. In addition, prolonged use of proton pump inhibitors has been linked to problems in iron and calcium absorption in infants.
There’s got to be a better way. And, thankfully, there are several natural remedies for baby reflux that have helped thousands of suffering infants.
Natural remedies for reflux in babies
Try body work
Some babies may have reflux due to the birth process. Griffin’s birth was long and difficult so I got him to a chiropractor right away. I was sure to find one who specializes in baby care as it’s a delicate art. It isn’t the traditional snap, crackle, pop that we can associate with chiropractor care but very gentle manipulations that are more like massage. You can find chiropractors trained for the postpartum/newborn stage here. You can also try massage therapy or cranial sacral treatments. Again, look for practitioners with clinical experience with acid reflux in infants. Finally, you may want to do do some basic movement/massage exercises with baby targeting gas and bloating such as bicycle legs or moving your hands gently clockwise along her digestive tract.
Elevate baby while sleeping
I did this instinctually with Paloma as she never seemed to settle to sleep when I placed her on her back. When she was very young, we swaddled her and put her in a chair. This is an excellent rocker/sleeper for baby with acid reflux as well. If you are co-sleeping, you can use this device, which would also work well in a crib.
Elevate baby while eating
While it’s tempting to use your nursing pillow and feed baby as he lays down, it’s best to have him sit upright. This ensures that the milk goes down into the stomach versus staying up in the esophagus, which causes the discomfort. You can also have baby lean slightly against your chest if you’re bottle feeding, or have baby nurse upright. A Boppy pillow can be helpful for positioning baby upright after meals which can help baby reflux symptoms.
Hold baby upright for at least 30 minutes after feeding
I always held Paloma upright for at least 30 minutes after I fed her. To make this easy, you can babywear them in an infant carrier or simply snuggle them as you walk around the house or sit in a comfy chair. If baby needs to go to sleep after feeding, be sure they sleep elevated to reduce acid reflux symptoms.
Nursing mom elimination diet
If you are a nursing mom, give up all dairy products immediately. I know this is tough but it can be majorly worth it. By doing this, some babies acid reflux symptoms disappear altogether! This was the case with Griffin. Dairy can cause problems because the proteins found in this food can irritate baby’s immature digestive tract. Be sure you give up the offending food/drink for a good month before you determine if it’s the culprit. Other common allergens include wheat, gluten, citrus, coffee, nuts, eggs, and soy. By eliminating these foods, you can help your reflux in baby.
While I normally don’t recommend supplements for young babies, there are times they can make a big difference, particularly with baby reflux. Yes, Paloma made good improvements by implementing the above suggestions, but I still felt she needed some extra support. I started by giving her a probiotic specially formulated for infants. L. reuteri is an especially helpful probiotic strain as it has been clinically shown to reduce crying time by 50% in colicky breastfed infants! The idea is that probiotics can help boost baby’s digestion and help alleviate many of the acid reflux symptoms in babies naturally. You can just mix a little in breast milk or formula and spoon feed or give with a syringe. I even mixed some of these probiotic powders into breastmilk and let it ferment overnight to make breastmilk yogurt!
The best for last: Homeopathic Remedy
The best for last: Homeopathic Remedies
The Homeopathic Remedy called Nat Phos 6X was a miracle worker! I read about it on this website and decided to give it a try. Nat Phos is a natural cell salt that we normally produce to aid in digestion but it can be insufficient in newborns. I took 1/2 a tablet and dissolved in my breastmilk and fed to Paloma with a syringe after each feeding. (You also could just put under tongue where it will dissolve.) Within a day, she was so much happier and wasn’t nearly as stiff! YAY! I kept using the remedy religiously. (Again, 1/2 tablet dissolved in milk after each meal, up to 6 tablets a day for children under 3 months. Check with your pediatrician or a trained Homeopathic doctor about what is right for your child.)
After about a month of using it, I slowly started weaning her off the homeopathic and we never had to use any digestive support again. Some moms will need to keep baby on the remedy until they turn 6 months or 1 year old. As baby gets older (6 months and up), you could go up to 1 tablet dissolved in milk after each meal, up to 8 tablets a day. (Again, check with doctor!)
What about special herbs or supplements for reflux in babies?
I know some moms also have success using products like Gripe Water or Colic Calm for baby reflux. I felt most comfortable with the cell salt because it was supplementing something our body already creates (versus adding in new herbs or formulations). A baby’s microbiome is super pure so you want to be careful what you add to it… I would stay away from things like slippery elm, apple cider vinegar, etc.
Paloma’s days of baby reflux are long gone
We stopped all the natural remedies for baby reflux when Paloma was about 4 months old and never looked back. She now has the digestion of an ox and can drink pasteurized milk, and any other food with no discomfort. YAY! I’m so grateful we didn’t use any of the harsher medications and instead found natural remedies for baby reflux. If going through it can help just one other mama not resort to harsh pharmaceuticals, then it was worth it!
How about you?
Have you tried natural remedies for baby reflux? Share it with us in the comments below.