Reflux & Baby Sleep
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. My goal is simply to give you a brief understanding of reflux, debunk some myths, and offer some practical strategies as it relates to your baby’s sleep. Please always consult with your doctor about reflux and any other medical concerns.
If you’re wondering whether your baby’s sleep struggles are due to an underlying physical issue such as reflux, I want you to know you’re not alone. Reflux is staggeringly common among newborns and young infants mainly due to their anatomy. Reflux can cause sleep struggles (because no one sleeps well when they’re in pain), so it’s best to sort out any reflux issues before setting your sights on practicing independent sleep.
What is Reflux Anyway?
Without turning this into a science lesson, reflux essentially means that the stomach contents are being pushed up into the esophagus. Due to the immaturity of the esophageal sphincter (the little flap that separates these two organs), nearly all babies experience some form of reflux. However, for most babies, there is no pain involved; they just spit up easily and are unimpacted. These babies do not need any type of treatment. But some babies do experience significant pain when the stomach acid enters the esophagus. These babies should be seen by a doctor for appropriate diagnosis, monitoring, and support.
How Do You Know if it’s Painful?
According to Mayo Clinic, some things you might see if your baby has the painful form of reflux include:
- Forceful and painful spitting up
- Being extremely difficult to soothe
- Fussiness following feedings
- Arching away during feedings/refusing food
- Frequent coughs/congestion/wheeziness in the absence of an illness
- Poor weight gain
- Blood in their stool
As I mentioned, babies exhibiting these symptoms should be under the care of a doctor.
How Can You Help?
Even if your little one does not exhibit signs associated with painful reflux, frequent spitting up is unpleasant and no fun for anyone. There are many things you can do to help decrease reflux incidences until your baby’s anatomy matures.
1. Feed your baby in an upright position
Keeping your little one’s head above their stomach will allow gravity to help keep the milk out of the esophagus.
2. Hold your baby upright for 20-30 minutes after feedings
Again, allow gravity to do some of the work for your little one. This practice should be easier to achieve if you are following an “Eat, Play, Sleep” routine during the day.
3. Burp your baby more frequently
This will allow your baby to rid their body of some of the gas bubbles that naturally build up when both milk and air is swallowed. You can try burping every 2-3oz or in between each breast.
4. Speak with your doctor about offering a probiotic
Studies have shown that some probiotics can help ease the discomfort associated with reflux and result in less crying.
Here’s What Not to Do
1. Do NOT elevate your baby’s head during sleep
This one might come as a shock to you as many pediatricians and medical professionals actually recommend this practice. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has reported that elevating the head of an infant’s crib is not effective in reducing reflux. It may also put your baby in a position that can compromise breathing and therefore is not recommended.
2. Do NOT lay your baby on their stomach to sleep before they have learned to roll
Many parents worry that placing their reflux baby on their back to sleep might result in them choking on their own spit up. However, this position does not increase the risk of choking, and is, in fact, safe. According to the AAP, “Sleep position does not increase the risk of choking and aspiration in infants, even those with gastroesophageal reflux, because infants have airway anatomy and mechanisms that protect against aspiration.”
To learn more about safe sleep practices and the reasons behind them, visit our blog on safe sleep.
3. Do NOT worry about independent sleep
So many parents come to me in tears because their baby has reflux and is struggling to sleep independently. Sometimes, when there is a true medical concern at play, the best course of action is to do whatever you need to do to get your baby sleeping safely and worry about independent sleep later. I have had so many former reflux babies become Oh Baby Sleep Graduates, so please know that once their reflux is under control, your baby CAN become a sleep superstar!
If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!