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How to Treat Colic and Infant Reflux With Acupuncture and TCM
By Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Colic and infant reflux are conditions that can cause excessive crying in babies and a lot of worry for new parents. Newborn reflux is when a baby spits up a lot, which is sometimes treated as GERD in infants. Infant reflux, also called baby reflux, and colicky pain can both be soothed with acupuncture and TCM treatment for babies.
Colic or Baby Reflux Can Be Treated With Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture
What is colic? Infantile colic is a well-known yet little understood syndrome, with crying being the primary symptom. Signs of colic include fussiness and crying inconsolably for hours. The crying, which can be more like screaming, often occurs at about the same time every day, usually in the later afternoon or evening. A colicky baby may also have a red face and display motor behaviors like clenched fists and drawing their legs up to their tummy.
What causes colic is not known, but it is sometimes attributed to gassiness and the movement of the undeveloped digestive system, which the colic newborn experiences with intense discomfort. It has been suggested that it may be related to food allergies in some infants, or to gut health. Some people also link colic to birth trauma. Babies with colic may have sensitivities related to the nervous system and have more trouble adapting to their environment, both externally and internally.
Colic is fairly common, affecting about 10-35% of infants. Most babies outgrow colicky abdominal pain within a matter of months. Those few months can be very stressful for the whole family, though. Colic is considered to be a factor in some mothers developing postpartum depression, so finding colic remedies is important for everyone’s mental health.
The symptoms of colic can sometimes look similar to those of infant reflux. Baby reflux also leads to fussy crying, wiggling and arching the body, and having trouble settling down to sleep.
Infant reflux refers specifically to a baby spitting up undigested milk from the stomach. This is also called GER (gastroesophageal reflux) and is actually a normal thing that happens with most babies.
Reflux happens because there is not a firm seal created by the esophageal sphincter muscle, which is still developing in a young infant. Sometimes premature infants are especially susceptible to having infant reflux.
Babies’ stomachs are designed to take in just a little bit of milk at a time. If the baby is getting too much milk, or swallowing air, it can cause leaking from the stomach up into the esophagus, especially when lying down.
Sometimes just working out the right feeding schedule, burping, and sleeping positions helps. In other cases, nothing seems to help. If spitting up or vomiting is interfering with the baby getting enough nutrients, then failure to thrive can become a real concern.
Acid reflux in newborns that is on the level of a disorder is rare (less than 1%). Sometimes, though, a baby may actually have GERD, where the spitting up happens very frequently and is causing the baby to feel sensations that we think of as “heartburn.” This can also lead to respiratory problems like coughing or choking due to breathing in the stomach acids.
You might find it hard to imagine acupuncture treatment being used for a tiny baby, but infants respond very positively to treatment. Sometimes auricular acupuncture (acupuncture on ear), where seeds are used instead of needles, is an option. Acupuncture can help baby reflux and colic on many levels: relieving pain, reducing bloating and inflammation in the digestive tract, while calming anxiety and restlessness and improving sleep.
Top 10 Signs of Infant Reflux
Newborn reflux symptoms can look similar to the symptoms of colic, but if there is frequent regurgitation of milk, or respiratory symptoms like coughing and wheezing, that may indicate baby reflux as opposed to colicky symptoms. Symptoms of infant reflux include:
- Frequent spitting up or vomiting
- Fussiness, irritability
- Crying a lot, screaming inconsolably
- Arching back, tensing the body, wiggling
- Coughing or wheezing while feeding
- Excessive drooling
- Poor sleep
- Doesn’t want to feed
- Spit up is green or bright yellow
New parents may be easily overwhelmed when it appears that their baby is in pain and isn’t digesting their food properly. If dietary changes and adjustments to the feeding schedule aren’t helping, then parents may seek medical advice.
Treatment for Infant Reflux
Generally, if your doctor just sees colicky symptoms, there is not a whole lot they can do other than offer suggestions for changing the dietary routine and making your baby as comfortable as possible.
In recent years, it seems that doctors are more and more likely to make a diagnosis of infant reflux when a baby is spitting up and crying, and to recommend medication as a treatment.
In the last few decades, GERD medications for reducing stomach acids, known as PPIs, (proton pump inhibitors), like Prilosec and Prevacid, have been deemed safe for adults and infants. However, evidence has also pointed to various problems and side effects with using these medications for more than a short period of time.
Changing the production of stomach acids in a young baby can affect how they are absorbing nutrients, like calcium and Vitamin B12. Use of PPIs has also been observed to cause kidney problems and affect bone density in adults. Less stomach acid can lead to more bacteria and more respiratory infections.
The majority of babies who experience infant reflux and/or colic will get over it naturally, usually within a few months. Anything that can be done to help understand the child’s constitution and promote good health during this time should certainly be considered. However, many people will not feel that resorting to medications is the best or only option.
Acupuncture and TCM offer a way to help acid reflux in babies and adults, without side effects. TCM treatment can help strengthen an infant’s digestive system, nervous system, and immune system, all at the same time.
Can Acupuncture Help Infant Reflux and Colic?
An acupuncturist will look carefully at the baby for symptoms of reflux and colic so as to differentiate, according to TCM principles, where there is an imbalance. For example, if a baby is crying, has a red face, and is feverish, we might see the pattern of “hot colic,” which happens when there is too much warmth in the stomach Qi. Babies with “cold colic” may be more listless and have chilly hands and feet. When treating Colic and infant reflux, the TCM practitioner will work on balancing and regulating the stomach Qi and clearing stagnation.
Many acupuncture points can be stimulated in order to help make the baby more comfortable and calm. The Yin Tang point can be helpful for reducing restlessness. Shen Men is the classic point to regulate the nervous system and help banish anxiety. Stomach points can help to reduce nausea and help stimulate the appetite.
Case studies have shown that small infants who are vomiting or spitting up can respond to acupuncture quickly, even after just one treatment. A larger study showed that acupuncture was effective at relieving colicky symptoms, shortening the duration of episodes of fussy crying.
Studies with adults have shown that acupuncture and herbs are more effective for long term reduction of acid reflux than PPIs. Acupuncture treatment can also help strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
In many cases, new parents need individualized support for making feeding and dietary changes. A qualified acupuncture provider is also highly trained in nutrition and can help determine if there are certain foods that need to be eliminated from the nursing parent’s diet or from the formula of choice. Finding positions and practices that help the baby relax before and during feeding, burp appropriately, and be settled to sleep when a feeding has come to a satisfactory close can be life-changing. These will be easier to implement when acupuncture treatment has helped even out the infant’s nervous system and soothed the stomach.
Acupuncture Near Me for Infant Reflux and Colic in Los Angeles
Parenting is a hard job, especially when the baby is not eating or sleeping well. TCM treatment can help with all kinds of postpartum issues for both mother and child, including problems with breastfeeding, postpartum depression, an infant’s weight loss or failure to thrive, as well as colic and infant reflux. Please, if your baby is crying and seems to be in pain, or is having trouble feeding, do not hesitate to call us at Art of Wellness. Drs. Cai and Tan have over 30 years of experience treating mothers and children with gentle acupuncture, herbs, and good advice.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.