What is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is when your baby has an underdeveloped digestive tract. This is, of course true of all babies to some degree for the first nine months of their lives, but about 20% of babies have a particular problem. As a mother, I want to help you understand baby reflux symptoms. The intestine muscles are not developed enough and cannot pull hard enough to take the milk down through their system. The sphincter muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus and the top of the stomach responds and closes in conjunction with the pull of the intestines taking the food down through the system and out as waste. If the intestines are not pulling enough then the sphincter at the top of the stomach does not close and anything in the stomach is free to go back up into the mouth. Of course liquid is most likely to do this, more than solid food and therefore with babies who can only have a liquid diet of milk it is very difficult to stop the return flow. Gravity is the most effective way, which is why the baby will be so much happier upright on your shoulder or propped upright on your lap.
The stomach’s content is acidic. When the milk in the baby’s stomach flows back, the lower oesophageal sphincter (the muscular ring at the lower end of the oesophagus going from mouth to stomach) doesn’t close and therefore it causes heartburn.
What are the symptoms?
A painful or burning sensation floods across the upper abdomen or with babies more normally across their chest. The acid content of the stomach may also come back up into the babies mouth causing a burning or sour taste. This can cause choking on the liquid or often makes the baby sick. Many reflux babies are very difficult to feed as so much of the milk they take is vomited back up once the reflux begins and this is usually very shortly after a feed. Both these things can be frightening to watch and can cause not only pain for the baby but considerable alarm for the parent. Not all acid reflux babies are difficult to feed or sick up their milk. Many just have the heartburn and although with these babies there is less worry about weight loss, they are often diagnosed later, as the symptoms are more subtle. It is no less painful to the baby and no easier to help them to sleep whatever the visible physical consequence of acid reflux.
What to call it in public?
Almost nobody has ever heard of acid reflux in a baby. Or if they have, they think of it as colic, or normal baby tummy troubles, or a bit of spitting up. Very rarely do they associate it with constant pain day and night or screams of agony every time the baby lies down. They certainly don’t imagine it as a powerful enough problem to impact on a whole family and overwhelm even a calm and sensible mother with no sleep, worry and even despair at times. The powerlessness you feel to help the tiny creature in your arms who is your responsibility is unbearable but at times combined with waves of desire just to put your hands over your ears; and all at a time when the usual post-new born hormones are operating as well.
GERD is another common phrase used by experts and on the internet, which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. I can guarantee no one has heard of this, unless they suffer from it as an adult. If so their sympathy and understanding is likely to be genuine as they too have felt the pain at night. I could never get my tongue around pronouncing it, but it does at least sound as if you have a real problem to deal with and not a bit of baby tummy ache once in a while.
Heartburn is probably the most accurate and compelling name. Everybody knows what heartburn is. Everybody knows how painful it is, how enormous the impact on sleep, how impossible to resolve and the delicate balance around times to eat. It can help you hugely if the words you use can be identified by other people. They can understand and then you feel understood. Heartburn is a very good phrase to use.
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