The miracle of growing a baby is overwhelming isn’t it? The thought of life developing from a few simple cells into a complex human being is an incredible feat of nature. But as the saying goes, there is no growth without pain… in this instance… reflux.

Our first experience of reflux might be when we are pregnant. That burning feeling rising up our throat, leaving a bad bitter spewky taste in our mouth can be the worst part of pregnancy for the two-thirds of pregnant women who experience it.

Why, oh why?

Reflux occurs because that baby-miracle means that the production of progesterone increases, causing the sphincter that closes the top of the stomach to relax. When it relaxes, it means that the contents of our stomach, both food and acid, can regurgitate and find their way upwards causing discomfort. It doesn’t help that the baby-bump squishes organs which adds to the problem. As that baby bump grows, reflux and heartburn can worsen, being most common in the final trimester.

Thankfully when the baby is born, the reflux should resolve, but if you experienced reflux before you were pregnant, and it continues after it might be worth looking at the things you can do to support a healthy stomach tone.

Help!

There are so many things that pregnant Mumma’s can do to help relieve the discomfort of heartburn/reflux and prevent it from happening in the first place.

To prevent:

1. Eat smaller meals
Smaller meals more frequently can reduce the amount of regurgitation that can happen. Rather than the 3 large meals, aim for 4-6 smaller meals, rich in super nutrition to support you and your growing babe.

2. Slow down!
Eating fast and eating when you are stressed is the easiest way to make reflux happen. Our body needs to be primed and ready for food. Slow down the way you eat and try not to eat when you are rushing around. We all have days when rushing is inevitable, so choose foods that are lighter and easier to digest, like soups, but are still immensely nourishing.

3. Avoid water with meals
Stomach acid has a low pH of about 1.5. Water has a neutral pH of about 7. When you drink water with your meals, you work against the acidic quality that your stomach requires to break down your food. Of course, you can sip water if you need something to drink but get into the habit of avoiding large amounts of fluids around mealtimes.

4. Don’t lie down after eating
Stay upright for at least an hour. This also means you shouldn’t eat too close to bed. The movement of digestion needs to be aimed downwards, so lying flat can mean that food is more likely to come back up through the sphincter.

5. Know your triggers
Certain foods can cause heartburn / reflux. Keeping a food diary to try to track down the common culprits that cause you problems is a good option. Common trigger foods include foods high in fat, citrus (including juice), caffeine, and spicy meals. These tend to cause a spike in acid production within the stomach and further relaxation of the sphincter.

6. Increase fibre
Adding extra vegetables, nuts, and seeds to your diet, or making sure you’re eating approximately 35 grams of fibre per day has been shown to reduce the occurrence of reflux.

7. Green vegetables!
Particularly during pregnancy, these nutritional powerhouses don’t just provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they have been found to have a protective function for reflux. Eat a variety of seasonal greens to support you and baby.

To help:

  • Ginger
    As well as helping with feeling nauseous in pregnancy, ginger root can be very useful for reflux when consumed about an hour before a meal. Add about 1/5 tsp (or 1 gram of the dried root) per cup of hot water and sip. Ginger has been shown to speed up the emptying of the stomach meaning there is less of a chance of it coming back up to the throat.
  • Chamomile
    This beautiful flower is incredibly useful for soothing the burning and reducing the occurrence of heartburn. Chamomile can be consumed as a tea throughout the day when symptoms are bad, straight after meals.
  • Slippery Elm
    This soothing fibre has been used by pregnant women for calming down inflammation in the digestive system. Simply mixing it into a paste and then adding a bit more water can provide a coating to the lining of the digestive tract.

Reflux in baby

Just when you have adjusted to having your digestive system back to normal after baby is born, reflux or colic occurs in baby! Colic is usually the culprit if baby is showing discomfort and it is always after a feed. It’s an incredibly difficult time for new parents, trying to navigate how to settle their little one.

If your baby has reflux, they may be a bit ‘spilly’. Often this can be as a result of food that mum is eating, not being fully tolerated by baby’s new digestive system. Some babies are more prone to reflux than others.

Naturopathically, breastfeeding mums who have a colicky or spilly baby could keep their diet simple, with lots of green vegetables, meat, water, and less focus on the foods that are common culprits to creating digestive issues - onions, garlic, beans, dairy, sugar, and spices. Giving baby lots of skin-on-skin time can help establish healthy gut bacteria, and there are many herbal helpers that can be of assistance for baby’s with a ‘belly-ache’.

  • Fennel seed
    A wonderfully fragrant seed that is famous for soothing digestion through it’s calming actions. The constituents within fennel stimulate the movement of food through the digestive tract and can help with spasms. Breastfeeding mums can drink tea made with fennel seeds, or it can be given to baby when cooled, just a small amount at a time (1/2 teaspoon). Fennel seeds should not be used during pregnancy, just post-partum or while breastfeeding.
  • Chamomile flowers
    Just as chamomile can be used when pregnant to help soothe the digestive tract, it can also be given to baby to ease colic and reflux. As well as helping digestion, chamomile is known for calming the mind, so might make for a less upset little one.
  • Liquorice root
    This soothing root can settle inflammation through the digestive tract and has been researched for its success in supporting babies with colic for short periods. As well as soothing, it helps to relax the smooth muscle of the intestines, easing pent up wind and allowing normal movement of food through the digestive tract.
  • Probiotics containing Lactobacillus Reuteri
    Reuteri is an important strain of beneficial bacteria. It helps the tissue health of the bowel as well as encourage other important health-giving species to thrive in the bowel. 

Liz McNamara is a Registered Naturopath with more than 16 years of experience in natural health. As the President of the Naturopaths & Medical Herbalists of New Zealand (NMHNZ) and the Natural Health Expert at HealthPost, Liz is passionate about health education and helping others lead healthy lives.