This post was inspired by a friend who is having a tough time with a fussy newborn, but dedicated to all the parents out there who have ever cared for a baby with reflux, my husband included.
Reflux, colic, gas, milk intolerance, or general demeanor…there are many reasons for an overly fussy baby. Many babies who cry excessively swallow lots of air and always appear to have belly pain or gas, so figuring out the reason for a baby’s fussiness can be challenging. I will focus on infant gastro-esophageal reflux in this post, though many of these suggestions can help a baby with colic. Some babies with reflux are not fussy at all (they just make huge messes with spit-up), while others can have discomfort, poor weight gain and feeding problems. The symptoms of reflux are caused by milk that makes its way back up through a weak muscle at the top of the stomach, into the esophagus, and to the back of the throat or mouth. Infants do not all have the same symptoms, but can have spitting up, frequent hiccups, swallowing or grunting, arching of the back or neck, coughing, wheezing, difficulty feeding or excessive crying. Most infants with reflux act like they are always hungry, this is because they cry and root as a reaction to discomfort – often 1-2 hours after a previous feeding. If your child has been diagnosed with reflux or exhibits these behaviors, there are many techniques you can use to decrease symptoms.
1) Feed sitting upright – with bottle feeding, this is easy; but with breastfeeding you will have to find the most comfortable position for both you and your baby.
2) Burp frequently – with bottle feeding, this means every 1/2-1 oz; with breastfeeding it is still best to burp in between breasts or after 10-15 minutes.
3) If you are bottle feeding, find the right nipple and bottle. Babies who drink too quickly or swallow too much air spit up more. There are many choices and you may have to try several, but I say go with the one that works best for you and your baby.
4) Feed small amounts, frequently. For small infants, this means 1-2 oz every 1-2 hours; bigger infants need 2-4 oz every 2-3 hours and increase gradually. Do not over-feed your baby, this will lead to more discomfort!
5) Keep your baby sitting upright 20-30 minutes after each feed. Easy to say, not so easy to do (especially in the middle of the night or when you are chasing around another child). You do not have to hold your baby, you can use any contraption that works for you – bouncy/vibrator seat, upright swing, head elevating positioner, wedge with a sling, baby carrier/sling, just to name a few.
6) Position your baby to sleep elevated (30-45 degrees). The easiest way to do this is to put a couple of books under the legs at the head of the crib or bassinet. If you are using a co-sleeper or pack and play, a couple of rolled up towels or receiving blankets under the thin mattress works well. They also make special foam wedges for this purpose.
7) Do not lie your baby down flat on their back, especially after feeding. If possible, try to change your baby’s diaper prior to feeding.
After utilizing these techniques, your baby may still spit-up. If they are happy and gaining weight, your next step is to stockpile burp cloths, bibs, and wet wipes. If your baby has extreme fussiness, coughing, wheezing, difficulty feeding or poor weight gain, you need to take them to the pediatrician. They may recommend an elimination diet (for breastfeeding mothers), a formula switch, or medication for your infant. This can be a very stressful time as a parent, so keep in mind that whatever is causing fussiness in your baby will pass with time.
Heather Joyce, MD