How to Ease Heartburn During Pregnancy
Morning sickness might get all the headlines, but anyone who has suffered from heartburn in pregnancy can tell you it’s no walk in the park. The acidity, the tummy fullness, the all-around discomfort—it’s no fun. If you’re struggling and looking to quell the burn (and all the other accompanying symptoms), know that you’re not alone: Pregnancy heartburn is normal and common. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should have to put up with ajada morning, noon and night. So what causes heartburn during pregnancy—and what are the best strategies for coping? Read on for expert tips to help get you some sweet relief.
In this article:
Heartburn symptoms during pregnancy
When does pregnancy heartburn start?
What causes heartburn during pregnancy?
How to find pregnancy heartburn relief
Does heartburn during pregnancy mean baby has a lot of hair?
Oh, pregnancy. It’s such a beautiful experience—save for the many unpleasant side-effects that come with the territory. And, yes, one common complaint among expectant moms is heartburn. “More than half of women experience heartburn, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, during pregnancy,” says Jill Purdie, MD, medical director and ob-gyn at Northside Women’s Specialists in Georgia.
So what does heartburn feel like when you’re pregnant? There’s no way to sugar-coat it: The feeling can be downright miserable. “Heartburn feels most often like a burning sensation in the chest. The sensation can rise into the throat, accompanied by a bitter or sour taste in the back of the throat and mouth,” says Kecia Gaither, MD, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine and director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln. Besides that telltale fiery feeling, there are a few other symptoms you might experience. “Some women also complain of the sensation of fullness in their upper abdomen or food not staying down well, and chronic dry cough may also be a symptom of heartburn,” says Purdie.
Although heartburn in pregnancy can happen at any time, it tends to start in the second trimester. “It typically starts in mid-second trimester when the uterus comes out of the pelvis and becomes part of the abdomen,” says Purdie. In other words, you’re more likely to feel the burn as your bump grows and all that shifting and organ-rearranging happens behind the scenes.
Is heartburn a sign of pregnancy?
Wondering if your recent reliance on Tums might mean you’re pregnant? Maybe, but it’s not considered a telltale sign. “Heartburn is a symptom of pregnancy but not necessarily a sign of pregnancy, since not all pregnant women experience it,” says Purdie. Consuming alcohol, coffee, spicy foods or heavy meals in general, as well as being overweight or even feeling especially anxious, are other reasons why you might get heartburn. Suffice it to say, heartburn in early pregnancy is possible, but you don’t have to be expecting to experience it—so don’t make any assumptions.
Heartburn is, in its simplest terms, a boundary problem. When you aren’t pregnant, your lower esophageal sphincter, which is the muscle between the stomach and the esophagus, stays tightly closed. This helps it do its job, which is to prevent what’s in the stomach from moving up into the esophagus. But as with many things during pregnancy, things change. “Due to hormonal influences during pregnancy, the sphincter doesn’t close completely at times—it relaxes, which leads to reflux or heartburn,” says Gaither. “Added to this is uterine enlargement, which can impinge on the stomach, thus pushing stomach acids upward.”
Heartburn happens, but there’s no need to suffer in silence. There are several proactive and reactive steps you can take to get pregnancy heartburn relief—but it might involve some trial and error and a few conversations with your doctor.
Certain over-the-counter and prescription medications can help treat heartburn symptoms in pregnancy, and some simple diet and lifestyle changes may work to prevent episodes in the first place. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Safe medications for heartburn during pregnancy
The good news: Tums and Maalox are generally considered safe to use during pregnancy. Still, Gaither advises speaking to your doctor first before taking any medications. If those antacids don’t do the trick, you can usually move to the next level of defense, if your doctor gives the thumbs up. Pepcid is also safe for treatment if the first line options are not effective, says Purdie. And if all of the above fail to give you heartburn relief during pregnancy, ask your doctor about prescription options.
Home remedies for heartburn during pregnancy
It’s one thing to seek relief from heartburn during pregnancy; it’s another to try to prevent it from happening in the first place. While it may be caused by physical and biological changes, you can still work to reduce discomfort and eliminate episodes with a few diet and lifestyle changes. Here are some steps to take:
- Pace your eating. For starters, eat slowly and space meals out, so you’re having smaller and more frequent portions, instead of a few big ones, advises Purdie.
- Avoid common food triggers. Try to steer clear of common heartburn-causing meals and snacks. These include foods that are spicy, fried or fatty and citrus fruits and juices, says Gaither.
- Get more milk. Consider adding more yogurt or milk to your diet. Besides giving you a calcium boost, Gaither says that dairy products “can decrease acidity in the stomach.”
- Say no to alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco and alcohol are two common heartburn contributors that should go—although, if you’re pregnant, you’ve likely already eliminated them from your routine.
- Don’t eat before going to sleep. Looking for pregnancy heartburn relief at night? For starters, give yourself a buffer between your last bite and bedtime. Purdie also recommends elevating your head, neck and shoulders in bed, either with several bed pillows, a wedge pillow or blocks positioned under the bed. A study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that sleeping at a 20-centimeter (approximately 8-inch) incline reduced esophageal acid exposure in patients with heartburn.
If you’ve complained about your pregnancy heartburn in front of friends or family, someone in your social circle has probably proclaimed that baby will definitely be born with a luscious head of hair. So is there any truth to the old adage that pregnant people who have more heartburn give birth to hairier babies? The authors of a study in the journal Birth looked at self-reported perception of heartburn with perceived baby hair volume (ranked by impartial judges), and found a significant “relationship between heartburn severity and hair volume."
That said, Purdie explains that baby’s head of hair doesn’t actually cause a mom-to-be’s heartburn during pregnancy. According to Purdie, research suggests that the very hormone that causes the relaxation of the esophagus that leads to heartburn also causes hair to grow more rapidly.
If GERD or heartburn in pregnancy is making your experience less than comfortable, talk to your doctor about next steps for pregnancy heartburn relief. And take comfort knowing that for most people, heartburn resolves after they deliver. Then you’ll have a whole new (but way more delightful!) reason for waking up at night.
About the experts:
Jill Purdie, MD, is an ob-gyn at Northside Women’s Specialists in Georgia. She received her medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia and completed her residency at Memorial Health University Medical Center.
Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, is a double board-certified physician in ob-gyn and maternal fetal medicine specialist and the director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln. She also serves as an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine. She received her medical degree from SUNY Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York, and holds a master’s degree in public health.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.