The psychological impact of your baby’s reflux on you and your family
I am a mother of two children who both suffered from reflux as babies and a psychologist who continues to see exhausted and distraught mothers of babies with reflux in my practise.
Having been through the incessant and nerve shattering screaming of the baby in pain, the broken and insufficient sleep for the entire family and the merry go round of searching for the right treatment, I can relate to this issue immensely. Fortunately, I can also relate to the relief and joy of finding the right treatment and support as well as finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
From the amount of friends, patients and family members I encounter who have struggled with a reflux baby; I can see how wide spread the problem is. When I had my first son Jake in 2005, reflux was not as commonly experienced or talked about in my circles as it was when I had my second son in 2008. In hindsight I can see that all the sleeping and feeding issues I had with Jake were very similar if not worse than those that I experienced with my second little one who was diagnosed with reflux by a paediatrician. At the time, particularly with being a new mum, I attributed those issues to my lack of experience, bad luck, just the type of baby I had etc. By about 8 months old many of the difficulties had eased (which I now assume was the reflux coming to an end) but we were left with a baby who woke up throughout the night every hour and two extremely frazzled parents. Fortunately we were able to get help and sorted out the sleep, but it was a very rocky period, especially for first time parents.
By the time I gave birth to my second baby, Brandon, many of my friends were experiencing reflux with their second babies. I had watched as my friends struggled with the sudden change of peaceful babies to screaming, unhappy, unsettled little people. I had also seen the transformation once reflux was diagnosed and treated. For the first 6 weeks Brandon was a ‘dream baby’ who slept and breast fed perfectly and then almost overnight he too transformed into the screaming baby who often could not be put down for hours on end, would not settle and was starting to be a problematic feeder. Being a second time mother and desperate not to repeat what I’d gone through with my first baby and with the knowledge I now had about reflux I decided to ‘get on top of it’ immediately. I contacted Cradle 2 Kindy and together with a great paediatrician and the right medication and monitoring of that medication as he grew, within a few weeks the reflux was greatly improved and eventually fully under control. By 8 months old Brandon was off the medication.
Those are the two very different experiences I had with what I strongly suspect were my two reflux babies and which are echoed time and again by my clients who are going through the same thing.
My advice from a psychological perspective would therefore be:
If you are struggling with your baby, read up, get advice and trust your instincts. If the problems seem to be more than the normal feeding and settling issues that parents struggle with from time to time with a new baby, get the appropriate help. The longer you wait, the more it depletes your resources as a parent.
Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest problems for parents. Exhaustion detrimentally affects moods – increased anxiety, weepiness, feeling agitated and touchy, oversensitivity, feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless and out of control are all common reactions to a chronic lack of sleep. The solution is not always easy, particularly for parents who do not have family around, single parents and parents with limited financial resources for extra help etc. This is the time to ask for and accept help from anyone who is prepared to give it. This is not the time to try to be superwoman! Get rest and breaks wherever possible. Sleep when the baby sleeps, prioritise rest over housework wherever possible, couples can take shifts with the baby to give each other decent breaks according to the baby’s schedule and so on.
Make yourself and your mental health a priority. ‘Happy mother happy baby’ is really a cliché that carries much truth. Do what is right for you, stop worrying about what others think and drop that mother guilt whenever it shows up. Constantly remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can and ‘this too shall pass’ can be a handy mantra to repeat to yourself. If baby won’t sleep or settle and you are at your wits end, putting baby in the stroller and going for a walk can be a great way to calm down and it may be easier to handle the crying. Pull out all your resources – exercise, meditation, yoga, ringing a friend, a massage, walking in nature; whatever you can do with the resources that you have to make life more manageable during a difficult time goes a long way to preserving your sanity.
Watch out for your relationship. Stress and sleep deprivation play havoc on even the best relationships. Try to remember that your partner is also going through a difficult time and reassure each other (or yourself when that is not possible) that this is about the situation and not about your relationship. In certain cases it may be about a relationship that was rocky to start off with and difficulties with your baby will cause extra stress. If that is the case try to get help in the form of counselling. Again, this may not be possible at the time with the demands of the baby and I would suggest getting the help as soon as possible and not just ignoring the problems in the relationship once life with baby get easier.
And last but not least, if you feel that you are not coping, do not hesitate to get professional help by seeing your GP, a psychologist or counsellor.
Michelle Fox is a registered psychologist currently practising in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. Her goal is to equip her clients with effective tools and techniques to enable clients to live their best life and to cope during difficult times.
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