What to Know About Infant Acid Reflux and Sleep

December 22, 2023

Reflux is a common issue in babies, affecting their comfort and sleep. This condition, where the stomach contents move back into the esophagus, can cause significant discomfort for infants, similar to heartburn in adults. Understanding the symptoms and causes of reflux in babies is crucial for parents and caregivers to manage this condition effectively.

Symptoms of Reflux in Infants

Mother nursing her infantMother nursing her infant

Infant reflux is characterized by several symptoms, including:

  • Irritability, particularly during and after feeding
  • Arching of the back during and after feeding
  • Vomiting shortly after feeding
  • Coughing, gagging or hiccupping during feeds
  • Excessive crying
  • Poor sleep patterns

Beyond these symptoms, reflux can also negatively impact your infant’s sleep by causing discomfort when they lie down. Babies with reflux may have trouble falling asleep or may wake up more frequently, leading to sleepless nights for both the child and caregivers.

Shop the Healthy Support Waterproof Crib MattressShop the Healthy Support Waterproof Crib Mattress

Healthy Support Waterproof Crib Mattress

Shop the Breathe Safe Breathable Crib Mattress 2-StageShop the Breathe Safe Breathable Crib Mattress 2-Stage

Breathe Safe Breathable Crib Mattress 2-Stage

Shop the Breathe Safe Breathable Mattress CoverShop the Breathe Safe Breathable Mattress Cover

Breathe Safe Breathable Mattress Cover

Causes of Infant Reflux

Understanding the root causes of infant reflux is crucial for effectively addressing and managing this common condition in babies.

Understanding the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES)

The most common cause of infant reflux is the underdevelopment or malfunction of the LES. This muscle acts as a barrier between the stomach and esophagus. In infants, an LES that is not fully developed can allow stomach contents to move back into the esophagus.

Other Contributing Factors

Other factors that can contribute to infant reflux include:

  • Overfeeding
  • Feeding too quickly
  • Improper positioning during feeding
  • Certain medical conditions, such as asthma or congenital abnormalities

Management Strategies for Infant Reflux

Parent feeding child to help manage infant acid refluxParent feeding child to help manage infant acid reflux

Effective management of infant reflux involves a combination of practical strategies and lifestyle adjustments to alleviate symptoms and ensure more comfortable sleep for both the baby and the parents.

Initial Steps

Before trying any home remedies, it's essential to discuss your child's symptoms with a doctor. In some cases, they may prescribe medication to alleviate symptoms of reflux in infants. These medications are designed to make your child more comfortable and improve their sleep.

Elevating the Sleeping Area

Elevating the head of the sleeping area is a simple yet effective method to reduce the symptoms of reflux in infants. By raising the crib or bassinet's head by approximately 10 degrees, gravity can help keep the stomach contents from flowing back into the esophagus. This position can significantly reduce discomfort, especially during sleep. 

Just remember: never use pillows or loose bedding in your infant’s crib, as they can pose a serious suffocation risk. Read Lullaby Earth’s complete guide to baby sleep safety here.

Feeding Adjustments

Feeding time plays a crucial role in managing infant reflux. Consider the following adjustments to your little one’s routine:

  • Feed your baby in a more upright position
  • Keep your baby upright for 30 minutes after feeding to aid digestion
  • Minimize movement for 30 minutes post-feeding
  • Burp your baby midway through a feed to release any trapped air

Dietary Considerations

If you’re chestfeeding, certain foods in your diet may potentially affect the baby and exacerbate reflux symptoms. Common irritants include:

  • Caffeine
  • Spicy foods
  • Dairy products
  • Acidic foods 

Keeping a food diary can be beneficial in identifying any specific foods that seem to trigger reflux in your baby. For formula-fed babies, consulting with a pediatrician about the possibility of switching to a formula designed for sensitive stomachs can be helpful. It's also crucial to avoid overfeeding your baby, as a full stomach can make reflux worse.

Baby dressed in comfortbale pajamasBaby dressed in comfortbale pajamas

Clothing and Comfort

Tight clothing can put unnecessary pressure on the baby's abdomen, exacerbating reflux symptoms. Opt for loose-fitting, comfortable clothes that don’t constrict the baby's stomach, especially around the waist. Additionally, ensure that their diaper is not too tight for the same reason. 

Your baby’s sleeping environment should also be comfortable, with a firm, flat mattress and appropriate room temperature (between 68 to 72 degrees). Overheating can increase discomfort and worsen reflux symptoms. Try a breathable mattress to help your little one regulate their body temp!

Dealing with infant reflux can be challenging, but it's important to remember that this condition usually resolves as the child grows older. By understanding the symptoms, causes and management strategies, parents can help their babies feel more comfortable and improve their sleep patterns.

I know this can be so hard. Remember that reflux in infants is a temporary phase. As your child grows and their digestive system matures, they are likely to experience fewer symptoms and enjoy better sleep. Stay patient and remember, you're not alone in this journey.

Rebecca Michi, Gentle Sleep CoachRebecca Michi, Gentle Sleep Coach

Rebecca Michi has been a children's sleep consultant for over a decade and has worked with hundreds of families all over the world. She loves supporting families as they work with their children to gently encourage easier sleep. Born and raised in England, she now lives in the USA with her husband, two teenagers and German Shepherd. Rebecca loves a good nap, fresh flowers and cups of tea. Learn more about The Michi Method for sleep at childrenssleepconsultant.com.