Reflux in Preemies

I’ve been communicating with a mom who had a 30-weeker two months ago. I met her through a Facebook page devoted to the local donation of breast milk. She contacted me to see if I could donate to her baby, but I’d already committed to giving 1,500 ounces away and was having to turn moms down. I had to tell her no, but I offered to answer any questions she might have as she journeys through Preemie Land. It has been a joy to help her, and it has made me want to do more.

Her question yesterday was about reflux, and I answered with a solid YES! Yes, both of my babies have had problems with reflux. In fact, I think most preemies suffer from it to some degree because they’re eating way before they’re designed to be eating (because they’re out of the womb weeks and months too early). I believe many babies have mild reflux issues as their bodies get used to swallowing, holding food down, and digesting that food. But, preemies have even more immature systems, not to mention stronger gag reflexes from having tubes down their throats and possible side effects from the supplements and medications they have to take while other babies were peacefully kicking around in their mothers’ wombs. Sure, you can hold your baby upright for 30 minutes after feeding, you can burp frequently during feedings, you can change the diets of breastfeeding mothers and switch formulas for formula-fed babies, and you can slightly and carefully prop up the mattresses of bassinettes and cribs (boy, that will sure start a debate among NICU nurses and doctors), but sometimes all of that isn’t enough. Both of my babies needed acid reflux medicine. Most of them have few side effects, and I swear I could tell a difference within a few days with my son and immediately with my daughter. I think if your baby is screaming uncontrollably around feeding times, is vomiting up much of their food, or is coughing down stomach acid, a little medicine twice a day is a lifesaver! I personally believe reflux has been under diagnosed in term babies in the past, and some old school doctors still tell parents to suffer through the phase until the baby is developed enough for the flap at the top of the stomach to do a better job of keeping acid out of the esophagus. But, preemies tend to have an additional problem. Their immature systems freak out and they tend to have a stronger reaction to esophageal pain–they just projectile vomit entire meals right back up, which is just awesome when you’re already stressing over every ounce your little baby needs to gain.

At this very moment, I am still completely confused as to why the doctors in the NICU, whom I very much respect, dismiss reflux in preemies. Most NICU nurses completely believe it is a problem (because they spend their days caring for babies with it), and many of them advise you to bring the issue up with your pediatrician as soon as you leave the NICU. Some pediatricians are less than sympathetic, but ours had their own experiences with their full-term babies and reflux, so they were completely understanding and proactive in trying to help us make our babies feel better.

So, here’s my take on reflux in preemies. It does exist, and it’s probably more likely and more severe in preemies than in the average term baby. I think if holding the baby upright, changing formula, etc. don’t work that it’s logical to try some of the medicines available to parents. And if your pediatrician isn’t listening to you, then you may want to rethink your pediatrician because over the next few years, you will probably have a number of preemie-specific questions and concerns. You want to know that your doctor is supportive and willing to help you as you navigate Preemie Land.

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