Breastfeeding Is Nature’s Antacid
By Gwen Morrison
Breast milk not only provides the appropriate nourishment to ensure a child’s optimal health and development in the early years, breast milk can be a means of comfort for babies with gastroesophageal reflux (GER).
What Is It?
Many babies spit up after feedings, so how does a parent know if their child has reflux? “GER occurs when the muscle at the entrance to the stomach fails to keep the stomach contents in the stomach,” says Dr. Gregory White, a La Leche League (LLL) medical advisor from River Forest, Illinois. “It can be frequent and painful. The milk, along with acid from the stomach, backs up into the lower esophagus and irritates the tissues there.”
Frequent burping, spitting up or projectile vomiting are some of the more common symptoms of reflux.
In adults, GER is easily recognized as heartburn, but babies can just end up uncomfortable and miserable. “Some babies spit up; others cry or act as if they are in pain,” says Dr. White. “Physicians used to dismiss these symptoms as colic, something which they could not explain and parents just had to survive. Now they believe that at least some of the cases of unexplained, inconsolable crying may actually be reflux.”
Diagnosing GER can also be difficult because the symptoms can be different for each child. Frequent burping, spitting up, or projectile vomiting are some of the more common symptoms of reflux, but there are others. If a baby is not gaining weight, having difficulty swallowing, nursing constantly or has a total disinterest in nursing altogether for an extended period of time, it should be looked at more closely by a medical professional.
“I breastfed my daughter for the first four months of her life,” says Erin Flanner of Montgomery Village, Md. “With the reflux, we seemed to do nothing but breastfeed. My daughter never slept, and she would want to nurse for comfort but it would then cause her pain.”
Answers for Moms and Babies
“Just as adults who have heartburn want something–crackers or milk–to ease the pain, so do babies,” says Mickey Forte, a certified lactation consultant at Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women in Memphis, Tennessee. “As a result, these babies usually want to nurse frequently. In these cases, it’s a good idea for moms to let the babies nurse on one breast for at least two hours before switching to the other side. This way the baby gets an adequate amount of hindmilk (more substantial milk, which is higher in protein and fat) as opposed to foremilk, which is higher in lactose.” Too much lactose can produce a fussy and a gassy baby.
The symptoms of reflux are minimized by the position in which the baby is held while feeding, says Forte. “Having the baby more upright at the breast, such as a ‘football hold,’ is beneficial. With an older infant, mom can try letting the baby straddle her leg and face the breast in an upright position.”
Forte suggests that babies be put in an upright position, such as in a car seat or a baby swing, an hour after feeding. This may help alleviate some of the reflux problems. “Usually reflux issues are resolved within approximately three months,” she says.
Information provided by La Leche League (LLL) supports the idea that Mom should keep Baby upright during and after feeding, allowing gravity to keep the milk where it needs to be. In addition, babies who spend large amounts of time on the breast may be better served by feeding one breast at a time. Breast milk acts as a natural antacid!
The comfort of a mother’s arms is always a great prescription for a child in pain. Holding and soothing a baby with reflux is important. The more upset a baby is, the more likely he is to experience an episode of painful reflux.
Flanner has seen her daughter suffer much since her birth. “My daughter was in so much pain with her reflux that she developed an aversion to feeding,” she says. “She continued to nurse for comfort, and it was that drive that fed her. It was difficult and gut wrenching to go through.”
Some babies end up hospitalized for extended periods of time, and that can be stressful on both mother and child. At this point, Mom may need to use a hospital-grade pump to establish and maintain an adequate supply for Baby. “We encourage moms to use a pump with a double pumping kit as soon as possible after the delivery of the baby,” says Forte. “Then she needs to pump eight to 10 times for about 15 minutes every 24 hours and transport her expressed milk to the hospital.”
At Baptist Women’s Hospital, there are three international board certified lactation consultants (IBCLC) available during the day to support moms in the hospital. One lactation consultant works primarily with moms in labor and delivery; one works in newborn intensive care; and one provides support for moms after they’ve been released from the hospital.
“It is very difficult for any mom to see her baby in the hospital for an extended period of time,” says Forte. “However, many of the moms in our newborn intensive care unit choose to provide breast milk because it may be the only thing they can do for their babies. This allows the mom to provide optimum nutrition for her sick baby and feel closer to him.”
Breast Is Still Best
Although reflux can be very painful, it is comforting to know that breastfed babies tend to cope better with the illness than their artificially-fed counterparts. According to La Leche League information, the breastfed infant’s tongue motion triggers peristaltic waves along the gastrointestinal tract. These muscular contractions help the milk and food travel down into the stomach. In addition, human milk digests more completely-and twice as fast-as formula.
It is important for moms to remember that human milk is the true standard for nutrition in babies. Experts in the area of reflux and breastfeeding agree that changing to an artificial formula could make the symptoms worse, not better.
The symptoms related to reflux in infants usually lessen and often disappear as the baby matures. In the meantime, be glad for the amazing, soothing miracle of nature’s antacid.