Research from Western Sydney University reveals new insights into the causes of baby reflux

Happy mum, happy bub: Katie Honan with Bella, who has had reflux since she was born, is smiling again after getting treatment. Picture: John Veage
Happy mum, happy bub: Katie Honan with Bella, who has had reflux since she was born, is smiling again after getting treatment. Picture: John Veage

A new Australian study that examines baby reflux reveals interesting findings into the root of its causes. 

Researchers from Western Sydney University found that several factors linked to the mother could have an effect on whether an infant suffered from the chronic condition.

Gastro-oesophageal reflux (GOR) occurs when the muscles between a baby’s food pipe (or oesophagus) and stomach, momentarily relax. The stomach contents may come back up into the oesophagus or mouth because muscles are not fully developed.

It usually improves by itself by the time babies are toddlers.

But the more serious gastro-oesophageas reflux disease (GORD) is when reflux leads to complications. Symptoms includes pain and discomfort in the chest or upper abdomen, gagging, frequent vomiting, excessive weight loss and delayed development.

The university’s School of Nursing and Midwifery analysed the reasons for infants being admitted to Karitane and Tresillian, the Residential Parenting Services in NSW, within the first 12 months following birth.

The project included an analysis of hospital records from 2000-2011, a random audit of 326 medical records from admissions to parenting services, and eight focus groups. 

Results, which were published in BMC Paediatrics, revealed maternal anxiety had strong associations with having a baby admitted in hospital with reflux.

Those babies were also more likely to be Australian-born, male, a first-born or a pre-term infant born in a private hospital via caesarean section.

The levels of anxiety are raised when there is a new baby because it's a big change in the family.

Paediatric neonatal nurse, Marnie Szeles

Katie Honan, of Burraneer, said her youngest daughter, Bella, 9 months, has struggled with reflux since she was born.

Bella was delivered naturally at 38 weeks in a private hospital.

“From day one, Bella was unsettled,” Mrs Honan said.

“She wouldn't sleep well and would want to constantly feed. It was exhausting.”

The mum-of-two assumed it was normal baby behaviour.

“We thought it was just a newborn thing [but] our first-born, was a really good baby,” she said.

She said each day was a challenge.

“Bella started screaming every time she was put on her back – she was hysterical in the car and hated her pram,” she said.

“She was agitated most of the day and struggled to have comfortable feeds because she would arch her back. She would prefer small, frequent cluster feeds. It was hard to get a break.

“I was anxious when I knew we had to go out because it would be a traumatic time for her and stressful for us. She would only sleep soundly being upright in the baby carrier. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Mrs Honan, 30, put Bella on a dose of Zantac, as recommended by her doctor. It eased the pain, but relief was short-lived.

Then a visit to the paediatrician was life-changing, she said.

“Bella was diagnosed with GORD and having an intolerance to cows milk,” Mrs Honan said.

“She started on Losec and remains on a heavy dose of that. 

“Because she’s only breastfed, my diet needed to change so she wasn’t having a reaction. I went on a strict soy and dairy free diet.”

Six months down the track, Bella improved.

“We finally had a baby who would lay on her mat and play, sleep in her bed and give us some happy smiles,” Mrs Honan said.

“I always wondered why Bella may have developed GORD and if it was something that could've been prevented.

“I think it's just one of those things. We all have a different birth and pregnancy journey.”

Whispers Cottage, based at Caringbah, helps parents Sydney-wide with support including advice on strategy and routine changes to help manage reflux.

Paediatric neonatal nurse, Marnie Szeles, says reflux is increasing.

“Lots of mums call us for sleep and settling issues, and about 75 per cent of those are for babies or infants suffering from reflux,” she said.

“Gut issues tend to be at the top of the list, followed by routine, sleep and diet.

“Overall I do see more male babies being more vulnerable to reflux.

“It’s also on the rise, which is frightening.

“My theory is that it’s the long-term change in our diets in terms of how food is produced and preserved.”

She says the findings also call for better support.

“I see very anxious and very relaxed mums, but the levels of anxiety are raised when there is a new baby because it’s a big change in the family,” she said.

“Mums tell me they feel they don’t have enough guidance – they’re just given a script.

“Women need to be heard and listened to, not judged.”