Reflux In Babies – The Natural Approach
Is your little one spitting up milk after a feed, unsettled and arching their body, or struggling to gain weight? Reflux in babies is a common concern for new parents.
For some babies, reflux doesn’t bother them at all. But for others, it can be uncomfortable or even painful. The good news is that there are natural approaches that can help to relieve the symptoms of reflux.
Watch the video below or keep reading to learn more about natural remedies and tips for managing reflux in babies.
What is reflux?
Reflux is when the contents of the stomach are brought back into the oesophagus and mouth. This is sometimes referred to as GORD – Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease.
Babies and adults alike can experience reflux. But it is more common in babies for a few reasons:
- The sphincter muscle that separates the stomach from the oesophagus is not fully developed in babies
- Babies have a short oesophagus, so it is less distance for stomach contents to travel
- They also have an immature gut, so the functions are still being developed
- They spend a lot of time lying on their back, which doesn’t help their digestive function
What are the symptoms of reflux in babies?
Reflux can present in a variety of ways. Some will have obvious symptoms, and others will have ‘silent reflux’ and only show subtle signs. Silent reflux cases are often missed or mis-diagnosed, so it can take time to get an accurate diagnosis.
The symptoms of reflux in babies can include:
- Bringing up milk after a feed
- Being fussy and unsettled after a feed
- Arching their body after a feed
- Slow weight gain or failure to thrive
- Respiratory symptoms such as coughing and wheezing
- Foamy bowel movements
- Sour-smelling breath
Some babies will not be bothered by their reflux – they spit up, but don’t experience pain or discomfort. In this case, you may not need to do anything about their reflux. But if your little one is uncomfortable, in pain or experiencing other symptoms, you may want to intervene.
Medical treatment for reflux in babies
There are several interventions that doctors may suggest if your baby has reflux.
Protein pump inhibitors and other reflux medications are often the first port of call for reflux in babies. These reduce the production of stomach acid, which can reduce symptoms.
However, this is just a bandaid solution. The relief it gives can be life-changing for some mums and bubs, but it doesn’t look at the cause. Most babies don’t have reflux because of an over-production of stomach acid.
Reducing stomach acid can also have negative side effects for gut health. We need stomach acid to break down proteins, so reducing it reduces protein digestion.
Research suggests that using reflux medications is linked to the development of food allergies. This is likely due to proteins not being digested properly, passing into the bloodstream and setting off the immune system.
A feed thickener may be recommended for adding into formula or expressed breastmilk. This can be useful for those who are failing to thrive because it can help them to put on a bit more weight.
Unfortunately, most feed thickeners are highly processed, and are often made using corn-derived starches. If there is a corn intolerance, it can make symptoms worse.
Introducing solids early
Many babies experience an improvement in reflux symptoms when solids are introduced. This occurs when the muscles around the stomach have strengthened as part of the next developmental stage.
However, some doctors recommend introducing solids early. There is no data or evidence to show that this step will help.
Babies with reflux often have insufficient and struggling digestive systems, so introducing solids early can actually cause more problems than it solves.
Natural solutions for your baby’s reflux
The answer to your baby’s reflux depends on what is causing it in the first place. However, there are several steps you can take to help manage the symptoms and uncover the root causes.
Address any feeding issues
Before anything else, you want to make sure you consult with a breastfeeding expert who can determine if there are feeding issues.
Problems with latching are common for babies with reflux. Tongue and lip ties are often associated with reflux. One study of 1000 infants on reflux medications assessed and treated tongue and lip ties. Afterwards, 52% of the babies were able to come off their reflux medication.
Positioning can make a big difference. Keep them upright after a feed so gravity can help the contents get further down. You may need to hold them up using slings, baby carriers or rockers to help.
If you’re looking for support, we recommend Amberley from Maternal Instincts By Amberley. You can find her website here.
Identifying allergies and intolerances
Babies with reflux often have allergies and/or intolerances. Identifying and removing these trigger foods can help to alleviate their symptoms.
The most commonly linked problem is cows milk protein allergy or intolerance. One study found that 1/3 of babies with GORD were also diagnosed with cows milk protein allergy.
Many babies will show other signs of dairy-related issues, including:
- Changes in bowel movements, including loose bowels and sometimes constipation
- Mucus or blood in stools
- Green stools
- Tummy pains, bringing the knees up towards the tummy
- Eczema and skin rashes
- Nasal and respiratory congestion
- Dark circles under the eyes
However, not every baby will have these symptoms. So it’s worth trialling a dairy-free approach to see if there are improvements.
If you are breastfeeding, you may need to remove dairy from your own diet. Try a 4 week trial off dairy and monitor their symptoms.
Dairy-free means removing any dairy or milk products including lactose-free milk products. Milk, yoghurt, cheese, milk chocolate, ice cream and custard are the most common dairy sources, but make sure you check your labels.
Other common problem foods for reflux include:
- Soy – this is important to consider, as many use soy as a replacement for dairy products
- Corn – if their symptoms are worse after using a corn-based feed thickener, that’s a sign that corn is a problem
However, we don’t want to overwhelm you as a mum with a young bub and suggest eliminating them all at once! That’s why we recommend starting with dairy, and seeking help if symptoms persist.
Consider bodywork options
Many clients have given us good feedback about bodywork as an intervention for reflux. At this stage, there is limited research to support these modalities with reflux. But there are some promising case studies that have shown improvements.
Make sure you find a chiropractor or osteopath who has extensive experience working with babies.
Other natural remedies
In the clinic, we see good results with other natural remedies, including herbs, probiotics and other supplements. However, these need to be tailored by a health practitioner to ensure the best results for your baby.
Looking for some support? Book a consult with one of our naturopaths here.
An important step for managing reflux is building a healthy, happy gut.
If you want to learn more about gut health for your little one, download our FREE Gut Health Ebook here.