Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Spit up is a staple in the first weeks of newborn life. It’s why you panic and rush to find a towel to throw over their shoulder when your friends wear good clothes to meet your bundle of joy. When food backs up from the throat or the stomach into the mouth it can lead to wet burping or vomiting after or between feeds. This is known as gastroesophageal reflux. As a baby’s digestive system starts to get the hang of feeding this messy business usually starts to fade, but if it happens frequently enough a baby may become constantly fussy or start to refuse to eat altogether. This can make life with baby stressful and difficult for the whole family.
There are a few things that have to go right to get what we put in our mouths from point A to B. You and I have munched on and swallowed hundreds of thousands of tasty food morsels in our lifetime. We’ve been diligently training the muscles of our digestive tract to deal with the food we put in our mouths quickly and efficiently for years. The newborn body hasn’t had nearly as much time as we have to master this process. It takes awhile to smoothly coordinate the muscles of the throat that move food from the mouth to the stomach, and when it doesn’t go as planned it can end in reflux. When food does make it beyond the throat, it relies on a valve to keep it contained in the stomach. Pressure differences between the throat and the gut play an important role in holding the stomach valve closed. The balance of these pressures is often thrown off by hungry little humans who guzzle in air when they fuel up. The southernly influence of gravity helps to keep the valve closed too, but for young babies who live a mostly horizontal life the Earth’s pull can’t always lend a hand. If the valve between the throat and the stomach is pushed open out of turn, food is more likely to back up into the mouth during this part of the process too. For all of these reasons, it’s no wonder that the digestive system can be so glitchy in the first few weeks on the job. Now imagine trying to work it all out in a body that’s tight and tense from twisting its way through pregnancy and birth. You’d be cranky too!
The good news is that most infants outgrow reflux by their first birthday. It often resolves as the the digestive tract matures and your little one spends more time upright. That being said, I wouldn’t wish a year of raising an inconsolable baby that refuses to eat on my worst enemy. Osteopathic treatment helps babies work out the kinks of feeding quicker by engaging with what we know about their anatomy and physiology. The digestive system starts in the mouth and travels through the neck, rib cage, and abdomen before making its grand finale in the pelvis. All of the parts are connected, and they rely on each other to do the job they’re designed for. A relaxed head and neck powers the throat muscles and helps to coordinate the contractions that push food south. The balance of pressures that holds the stomach valve closed is influenced by how freely the rib cage and diaphragm move. And a smooth transition to the vertical world depends on the health of the entire system. Identifying these patterns takes us to the end of the story, but to understand where it all came from we must also look to the birth. The dance a baby performs on its way out of the pelvis gives us clues that helps piece everything together. When I see a baby with reflux I use this story to guide treatment, using light soft tissue release and gentle stretching to ease tension in the areas that need it. This holistic approach makes digestion as effortless as possible so food stays the course and keeps reflux at bay. All of this relaxation creates calming comfort in the body that translates to less fuss around meal time too. When it comes to babies reflux happens, but osteopathy is here to make life at home a little happier for everyone.