Breastfeeding a Baby with Reflux

How to get the support you need

As a breastfeeding support volunteer, I generally avoid sharing my own story as I prefer to focus on the parent in front of me but bear with me because my story is relevant to why this blog has been written and it is one of the reasons I am so passionate about infant feeding support.

My daughter was a “reflux baby” and she was treated with anti-acid medication for a long while, so when I talk to you about reflux, believe me, I know it, and I know how hard it can be.

I joke that when A was born she cried straight away and didn’t stop! My poor baby spent her first weeks wailing, coughing, writhing and red in the face, pretty much all day and most of the night. I felt trapped in the house. I remember feeling so desperate I wanted to cry when the health visitor left me in the house alone, with a baby who did nothing but scream at me. It was a pretty awful introduction to parenting. At 5 weeks old, she was diagnosed with reflux and we were prescribed infant Gaviscon by our GP. Like many parents, I took the prescription gratefully, and the numerous prescriptions that followed. It was the beginning of a journey which didn’t resolve for another twenty months.

What is problem reflux, or GORD?

Reflux simply means “a flowing back” and many babies spit up and vomit without being bothered by it at all. Problem reflux (GORD) has a variety of symptoms, which you can read more about here. Certain conditions can contribute to reflux, for example, it is more common in babies who are premature or babies who have other health conditions.

A baby who is spitting up a lot without distress or without other problematic symptoms it is unlikely to have reflux disease. If your baby is crying mostly during the evening hours yet content most of the day, they may be experiencing normal baby evening fussies.  So while these things can be alarming for parents (and messy!), it is important to be aware of the difference between what is normal and what is “reflux disease”.

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Mums who worry their baby has reflux often say to me, “I think it’s reflux because he just won’t let me put him down in the cot! I think he hates being on his back.” Here’s a secret which might help you feel better: most newborn babies hate being put down and prefer to be held. That’s normal baby behaviour.

Many medications used in the treatment of reflux disease are used “off-label”, they weren’t originally developed with infants in mind, and there are some studies which raise concerns about their use, especially over long periods of time.

If you’ve read all of the above and you are still with me at this point, I’m sorry. Dealing with reflux is a really distressing and difficult thing to cope with, and I know how it can feel relentless and never-ending. Here is some more information for you to consider.

Some common causes of reflux in breastfed babies

(This is not an exhaustive list!)

1. A shallow latch, or otherwise disorganised feeding

If your baby is not attached deeply to the breast or has a disorganised suckle they may take in more air as they feed. When air is expelled it can result in spitting up. Trapped air can also be very painful for the baby. This can result in reflux symptoms such as back arching, crying, and hiccoughs. Babies with shallow attachment may also struggle to transfer milk, leading to a fussy baby who wants to breastfeed 24/7.

This is why NICE recommends a breastfeeding assessment first as part of its quality standards: “A breastfeeding assessment should be the first step in supporting parents and carers with managing frequent regurgitation of feeds associated with marked distress. Correcting the breastfeeding technique for breastfed infants (for example, positioning and attachment) can improve or eliminate the symptoms.”

Sorting out a shallow latch can be as simple as doing a little work on positioning and attachment. Some babies with shallow attachment may have anatomical differences which hinder deeper attachment, for example, tongue tie or a high arch palate.

This is a great resource to help you with attaching your baby.

2. Breastfeeding management

In the UK we have a cultural expectation of having a few hours between feeds and this impacts on how we feed and treat our babies. Instead of smaller, frequent feeds sometimes we encourage our babies to “go longer” and take in more milk, less often. Some babies cope with this just fine but others may struggle, with large volumes of milk hitting the stomach and then coming straight back up. Some babies may protest- loudly!- about having their feeds delayed. So responsive feeding, and watching our babies instead of the clock may help. More about responsive feeding.

Our babies also spend a lot of time on their backs, which is no help for reflux. We commonly feed babies in the cradle hold, and then they are placed on their backs in Moses baskets and in prams. However, our babies evolved to be held. You cannot cuddle a baby too much. Simply carrying our infants more and experimenting with other feeding positions can go a long way towards helping babies with a tendency to reflux feeds.

3. Food intolerances and allergies

If your child has been properly diagnosed with GORD, and you’ve had a breastfeeding assessment which found no problems, it’s interesting to note research suggests a significant link between food allergy particularly CPMA. Some studies show a link of up to around 40%. CMPA is discussed in the NICE guidelines as one differential diagnosis for GORD.

Does that mean all parents with reflux babies should immediately be told to cut out dairy products? No, I don’t think so.

As you can see above, there are other things to explore before taking drastic steps, unless your child is exhibiting other clear symptoms of cows’ milk protein allergy. If you want to learn more about CMPA you can read my blog, or the BfN factsheet might be helpful.

Addressing attachment, examining the oral anatomy and considering breastfeeding management first is usually quicker and easier than making big changes to your diet. It is far more likely a more commonplace issue is the problem and it can take 4-6 weeks for both mum and baby to be totally free of dairy protein. Looking at the basics first is really important.

If you are concerned about CMPA it’s also a good idea to speak with a GP or health visitor as you may need support from a dietician.

4. More great reading on the management of reflux and other potential causes here.

You’ve had a reflux diagnosis for your breastfed baby. What now?

We’ve talked about the NICE guidelines above and so we know a breastfeeding assessment may be helpful. It’s worth making sure the person who does the assessment is skilled and experienced in doing this, so you probably want to see a breastfeeding counselor, La Leche League leader or IBCLC.

It might be a good idea to make sure you see somebody who is familiar with tongue tie, just in case this is a factor.

The great thing about doing this is that an IBCLC can help you look at the full picture and consider all the angles such as:

  • Attachment and positioning.
  • Your baby’s suck/swallow/breathe pattern.
  • If there signs of oversupply or milk transfer problems.
  • Indications or risk factors for allergies.

In some cases, after doing all of this, medications can be appropriate and necessary. A pediatrician can discuss with you the risks and benefits so you can make an informed choice about the best way forward.

Coping with a breastfed baby with reflux

I’ve made this into a meme, for easy sharing and saving. Basically, “Think Boobs!” (I know, I’m a cheeseball, but I couldn’t resist):

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Reflux does generally pass and get easier with time. With some help and support, it may pass more quickly. Asking the right questions is the first step to moving forward.
How did my own story end? Well, after getting some support from an IBCLC, my daughter was diagnosed with a cows’ milk protein allergy. We finally came off all our medications and beat the demon that is reflux. She still didn’t sleep in her cot, but that’s okay – I liked the cuddles ❤.

This blog is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional, simply to give information for further discussion. Please make sure any concerns about your baby are discussed with a medical professional or a health visitor.

Find me on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/OxytocinAndOtherStories

Further reading:

GPIFN: https://gpifn.org.uk/reflux-and-gord/

Kellymom: https://kellymom.com/hot-topics/reflux/

*This blog has been substantially updated from an article I wrote for Breastfeeding Support and Information UK‘s blog “Through the Eyes of a Breastfeeding Support Group” if you like you can still read the original here *

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