If you’re battling “the burn” in your chest (AKA heartburn) during your pregnancy, you may have been told it means your baby will be born with a full head of hair. Alas, this is just an old myth. Add it to the list of many “old wives’ tales” you’ll probably receive during pregnancy.
The truth is heartburn is quite common – both in everyday life and during pregnancy. Heartburn is one of the most common gastrointestinal symptoms, occurring in 17% to 45% of pregnant women.
The good news is that there are a few things you can try to relieve and prevent the burn. Read on to learn more about heartburn during pregnancy and ways to soothe the burning in your chest.
What is heartburn?
Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart, but it can cause a burning sensation in your chest. Heartburn symptoms can also include a sore throat, coughing and a sour/bitter taste in your mouth.
Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, a condition where some of the stomach contents travel back up into your esophagus (food pipe). It creates a burning pain in your lower chest. If it occurs regularly, it can be symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
When does heartburn start during pregnancy and why does it happen?
Heartburn may start at any time during your pregnancy. It can get worse as your pregnancy goes along, but it usually improves or goes away after you have your baby.
Susan Bush, a certified nurse-midwife with Banner Health, said there are a few reasons for this:
- Changing hormones
- Your growing baby
- Slowed digestion
“Your pregnancy hormones (particularly progesterone) that soften the ligaments and joints in your body also cause the relaxation of the esophageal sphincter (the flap between your stomach and esophagus),” Bush said. “This allows stomach acid to go up into the esophagus, which can cause a burning, uncomfortable sensation.”
Another reason is that as your body changes shape and your baby grows, your uterus will push up against your stomach. “This increasing pressure or “squishing” on the stomach is why heartburn tends to worsen for some pregnant people in the third trimester,” Bush said.
Also, during pregnancy, your digestive tract slows down so nutrients can be more readily absorbed by the baby. This can cause gas, bloating, nausea and heartburn, to name a few.
How is heartburn treated in pregnancy?
Talk to your health care provider if you are experiencing uncomfortable heartburn. Most often, they may recommend lifestyle changes and home remedies first to see if this helps make your symptoms more tolerable.
Bush offered the following tips to get rid of heartburn during pregnancy:
- Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Check out “What Foods to Eat and Avoid During Pregnancy” for ideas and tips.
- Drink liquids before and after eating (not during) to prevent your stomach from getting too full.
- Sip on milk with honey or eat yogurt. These may be just what you need to neutralize heartburn-causing acid.
- Avoid citrus, greasy (fried food), high-acid food and drinks, and spicy food. Limit fatty foods.
- Try papaya. The digestive enzymes found in papaya have been shown to help ease symptoms. There are also papaya enzyme tablets available over the counter.
- Prop yourself up during sleep. Sleeping with your head elevated over your chest can help control flare-ups and provide pregnancy heartburn relief at night.
- Chew sugar-free gum after meals to increase saliva production.
- Limit your caffeine intake to under 200 milligrams (about 12 ounces of coffee).
What heartburn medications are safe during pregnancy?
Oh, Mylanta! If the natural methods above aren’t cutting it, you may need medication for further relief. However, you have to be extremely careful when it comes to medications during pregnancy.
The following are some over-the-counter medications (antacids) that are considered safe to use during pregnancy, but talk to your health care provider or a pharmacist before taking them:
- Tums (calcium carbonate)
Avoid antacids that contain aspirin, such as Alka-Seltzer and Pepto-Bismol or sodium bicarbonate.
“These neutralize acid already present in the stomach,” Bush said. “They will put the fire out immediately but not as a long-term solution.”
H2 receptor blockers, also known as H2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs), are commonly prescribed for heartburn symptoms and are considered safe for short term use during pregnancy by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Your health care provider can prescribe a specific H2 receptor or suggest an over-the-counter option. H2 blockers have minimal side effects, but they can interact with other medications, so it’s important to discuss their use with your physician.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
For a long-term solution, your provider may recommend PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), which decrease the amount of acid produced in the stomach and control acid reflux. These medications (e.g., Prevacid and Prilosec) are safe in pregnancy and available either as a prescription or over the counter.
“I always caution patients that once you start this type of medication, you should continue on a daily basis – once or twice daily – because if you stop, you can experience rebound reflux,” Bush said.
Heartburn is very common during pregnancy. Get yourself some relief.
Contact your health care provider if you’re not finding heartburn relief. Your provider can help guide you regarding treatment options, whether that’s making certain lifestyle changes or taking medications.
Contact your provider if you notice additional symptoms, such as headaches or swelling of your face, hands and feet, or experience problems, such as weight loss, stomach pain or trouble eating.
Need help treating heartburn and acid reflux during pregnancy?
Schedule an appointment with an OBGYN.