Understanding Reflux in Babies: Causes & Symptoms

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Published On
24 Jan, 2021
Read Time
3 minutes

Reflux is when a baby brings up milk, or is sick, during or just after a feed. It's normal for most babies (which is why all those bibs come in handy) and usually gets better, without causing any significant problems.

What causes reflux in babies?

Reflux happens because the muscles at the bottom of baby's oesophagus (food pipe) and stomach are not fully developed, so rather than going into their tummy, milk and food can sometimes travel back up. As your baby grows, these muscles develop and your baby stops getting reflux.

Reflux usually starts before your baby is 8 weeks old and gets better by the time they reach their first birthday.

Signs of reflux in babies

Your baby may show that they are distressed and uncomfortable in many different ways. It's not always reflux that's causing their pain. They may be feeling hot, cold, want a change or just a cuddle. But signs of reflux include:

  • Baby bringing up milk or being sick during or shortly after feeding
  • Baby coughing or hiccupping when feeding or seeming to have a sore throat
  • Baby being unsettled during feeding
  • Baby swallowing or gulping after burping or feeding
  • Baby arching their back and turning their head
  • Fighting feeding or refusing to feed
  • Crying for long periods and becoming upset during and after feeds
  • Persistent hiccups
  • Not gaining weight as they're not keeping enough food down

What is silent reflux?

Regular reflux happens when your baby spits up milk after feeding. Sometimes babies don't spit out what comes back up but swallow it instead. This is known as 'silent reflux'. Babies with silent reflux might gain weight normally but show some of the other signs of reflux.

With silent reflux, when your baby brings up milk, some of the acid from their tummy will come with it, making your little one uncomfortable and restless after feeding.

If you notice your baby swallowing after a feed, when there shouldn't be milk in their mouth, they may have silent reflux. Your baby may develop a cough and will often show signs of discomfort when lying down.

Tips to help a baby with reflux

  1. Gently burp your baby regularly while feeding
  2. Take breaks during a feed
  3. Give your baby shorter but more frequent feeds
  4. Hold your baby in a more upright position during feeding. Generally the advice is to keep their head higher than their bottom during feeds
  5. Keep your baby upright for 20-30 minutes after feeding
  6. Change your baby on their side to avoid any discomfort caused by lifting their legs towards their stomach

Top tip

If you're using formula to feed your baby, you can use thickened 'anti-reflux' formula milk. But it's important to talk to your doctor or a healthcare professional before you try this as thickened milk can swap reflux for constipation.

Are some babies more inclined to get reflux than others?

Reflux can be more common among babies who are born prematurely and babies who had a low birth weight. Babies and children who have an allergy to cow's milk may are also more likely to develop reflux.

Babies who are breastfed and formula fed can both get reflux. But it's generally accepted that breast milk is easier for babies to digest, one of the many reasons it is recommended that you breastfeed your baby.

If your baby is formula fed and develops reflux, you can try giving them smaller feeds more often and talk to a health professional about the best kinds of formula milk to feed your baby.

You should seek professional medical advice if your baby:

  • Is not improving after 2 weeks of trying things to ease their reflux
  • Gets reflux for the first time after they're 6 months old
  • Is more than 1-year-old and still gets reflux
  • Is not gaining weight or is losing weight