'My baby was sick 100 times a day with reflux – this is how I coped'

When most of us think of the newborn baby phase, we picture a cute bundle of joy, family and friends fussing over our new arrival and bonding with other new mums at baby groups.

READ: 'I have six kids including two sets of twins 20 months apart – this is my life

But for one mum – and many others like her – life was far from this idyllic image. Sally Bett’s son, Raphael, now six, and daughter, Peppy, three, both suffered from reflux during their first year and the experience was an exhausting, stressful and isolating one.

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In our exclusive interview below, Sally, 41, recalls those dark days in her own words, telling HELLO! how her little Raffy would vomit over 100 times a day and survive on just 20 minutes sleep a night. She is an inspiration for getting through such a tough time as a first-time mum.

Sally’s second baby Peppy had silent reflux, and while not as unwell as Raffy, also spent months feeling uncomfortable as a newborn.

Parent and Baby Coach Heidi Skudder explains reflux as: "The regurgitation of stomach acid and milk from the stomach into the oesophagus. Whilst some babies will be physically sick, lots will just experience this silently, without any obvious symptoms."

 Here, Sally tells her story and reveals how her family coped…

sally-bett-family
sally-bett-family

Sally with her family now

 

Pregnancy and birth

My pregnancy with Raphael was fairly normal. He did have hiccups a lot in the womb and I’ve since read that that is a sign a child might suffer from reflux. I could feel it quite a lot especially at night. I’d never had reflux before but I had to sleep propped up with a bottle of Gaviscon by my bed because it was burning most of the night – it was awful.

The birth was fine. It was a fairly quick labour. I remember I was sharing a room with another lady who’d just had her baby - her baby was silent but mine was crying all night.

I felt really embarrassed; she was trying to get some sleep and I couldn’t believe that my baby was crying so much.

I thought I was doing something wrong. He didn’t latch on to feed very well, so I assumed he was really hungry. Then I heard her say to the midwife, 'What's wrong with that lady’s baby?'

Because I was a new mum and the doctors kept telling me "All babies cry", you don’t think anything of it. I just thought ‘mine’s a particularly lively one’.

When Raphael didn’t latch on, someone suggested to me that he was tongue tied. The midwife had a look and said, "Yes, he’s partially tongue tied, but to be honest so many babies are these days." Again, I didn’t think anything of it. I went home the following night.

MORE: Postnatal depression and me: A real-life account of what it's actually like

baby-raffy
baby-raffy

Raphael as a baby

 

Tough early days

It was fraught at home. The faff of trying to feed him properly… we had midwives and a lactation specialist come over. It was the year of a heatwave and I felt every time I tried to feed him there were a million hands on me trying to move my boob in one particular way or move the baby’s head to the right position.

It all felt so unnatural to me – like I wasn’t doing it right or I was failing, and not bonding as a mother and son. It wasn’t a pleasant time or how I felt having this beautiful newborn would feel.

It must have been after a couple of weeks that the sickness started.

Every feed he would be sick, and it felt like the entire feed was coming up. He’d make these noises, go red in the face and squirm after feeding.

Again, the health visitor or midwife will tell you all babies spit up their food and that’s totally normal" – but it didn’t feel normal to me at all.

baby
baby

The adorable Raffy

I’d be googling pictures of what a normal spit up would look like and it would just be a little dribble, but this was much more. It would be straight after his feed and right up until his next feed, so it would just continue throughout the today.

I was worried, and the night times were bad too.

My heart would sink when I had to feed him at night because I knew how uncomfortable he’d be afterwards and we’d then lie awake listening to him being sick.

I think the vomiting upset Raffy. He constantly smelt of bile and we were so stressed. We were constantly changing clothes and doing washing. The amount of muslins we’d get through… we’d take about 12 out with us at any one time.

My NCT group were sending around pictures of their babies and they all looked quite podgy and squidgy. I remember sending a picture of Raffy and he just looked so scrawny, and it made me stop and think, hang on, I’m a bit worried now, he looks really thin. So I bought myself some baby scales to weigh him every day which obviously sent me into overdrive worrying about his weight.

I also remember googling Raffy’s symptoms and dairy allergy came up as a suggestion, so I eliminated ALL dairy from my diet when I was exclusively breastfeeding thinking maybe my diet was affecting him. I did this for weeks but it made zero difference other than me being totally miserable having cut out all my favourite foods when I needed that comfort the most.

So I presumed then it probably wasn’t a dairy allergy. I tried the prescription dairy free formulas but it just made him more uncomfortable.

MORE: Baby won't stop crying? 4 reasons why and how to fix it

 

Seeing the doctor

I took Raffy to the health visitor and they said he was ok; he’d lost a lot of his birth weight but he’s still in the safety zone.

I went to the GP and said: "I don’t think this is right; he’s crying all the time, he’s really uncomfortable". I showed him videos of how he was clenching his fists, arching his back, making these noises and red in the face, crying and being sick and how little he was sleeping at night.

I remember him looking at me and saying, "Oh mummy, all babies cry, all babies are sick. You’re a new mum, go and get some rest. You’ll think clearly about it if you have some sleep – do you have a good support network around you?"

It was the most patronizing thing I’d ever heard. He said, "Is daddy helping? Is daddy hands on?"

Every time I spoke to someone it just made me think it was me. I had friends telling me maybe I had postnatal depression, so I felt really low. But I just knew something wasn’t right.

baby-sling
baby-sling

It was a very tough first year for Sally and Raffy

I’d been recommended a sleep trainer, thinking maybe if he slept better he might be less uncomfortable and cry less. He was managing about 20 minutes sleep a night.

So I got a sleep trainer in and she helped to a degree.

She got Raffy sleeping better and agreed he did seem very uncomfortable with feeds. She said I had to break him off from a feed every two minutes to burp him, which obviously he hated. Every time I broke him off, he would projectile vomit. The burping did help him a bit though as I think he was taking in air.

We went back to the GP, who asked me to write a vomiting and crying diary.

I started it the next day when Raffy woke up in the morning. I think I got to about 4pm and he’d vomited 85 times and cried about 80% of the day. In 24 hours, he probably vomited twice that amount. It was constant; he didn’t stop vomiting. I showed the doctor and he said, "Right, we’ll get you an appointment."

She referred us to a pediatrician at the hospital. I chased our appointment every day – I needed to get that date in the diary.

sally-bett-baby
sally-bett-baby

Mum with her baby boy

Eventually I got the letter and the date was five months’ time. I thought, we’ll all be dead by then. We can’t possibly do this. Also I was trying to work – I’d had about two weeks off maternity leave - which wasn’t happening at all.

I put a message out onto my neighbourhood WhatsApp group. Another mum whose child had suffered from reflux recommended a private paediatrician, who could see me the next day. It was an absolute godsend.

She saw straight away that Raffy had reflux and how uncomfortable he was. The poor child – he’d been soldiering on with this. She prescribed omeprazole which was impossible to get in his mouth. It was a syringe full of liquid and every time I gave it to him, he would just vomit it straight up. That felt like the next battle: how to keep a liquid medicine into a reflux baby.

I don’t know if it helped but it felt reassuring to know that yes, he did have reflux, we weren’t going mad and there was a medicine out there that could help him if we could get it in him and keep it there.

Frustratingly though, nothing seemed to work.

When I expressed and I used some stuff called Carobel (a thickening agent) in a bottle of milk, that seemed slightly better. It lessened his vomiting by about a third.

I joined some groups on Facebook. One person said that I should see a difference by about nine months, when they’re sitting up on their own and are on solids.

 

Feeling isolated

Having a baby with reflux can be very isolating.

I’d go round to people’s houses and they’d put sheets on the sofa, and I could see how they wouldn’t want to hold my baby. It felt really awkward all the time.

People knew the stress that I was under. If I was holding Raffy and his face was on my shoulder, I could see they wanted to tell me that he’d been sick all down my back but were afraid to in case I got upset. Everyone was treading on eggshells around me.

I didn’t want to do any of the baby groups. My NCT friends were all messaging saying, "Oh it’s Rhyme Time, is everyone coming?" and they’d all go, but I didn’t want to do anything. I was tired but I also knew he’d be sick everywhere so it would be embarrassing, and he would cry throughout the whole session.

I felt very alone. Again, people kept pointing out to me that I probably had postnatal depression because I was staying home all the time. I knew it wasn’t that. The pain wasn’t my pain, it was my baby’s pain.

baby-garden
baby-garden

Raphael gradually started to be sick less

 

Light at the end of the tunnel

I think it was bang on nine months when I suddenly realized, wow, he’s only been sick four times today. It was amazing. I think it was the solids that really helped. Raffy went from strength to strength.

When he got ill, it would always go to vomiting, like if he had a cold and a cough he would throw up. I knew it wasn’t a stomach bug – that was his weakness.

Things got so much better. He was happier, he stopped crying so much. He was a very determined baby; he started walking at 11 months.

He used to vomit when he crawled because of the position he was in, so the posture of walking really helped him stop vomiting. By 11 months I don’t think he was being sick at all.

sally-bett-family-four
sally-bett-family-four

Sally with her husband Blair and their children

 

Support at home

A lot of people thought, ‘How are you two still together?’ about my husband Blair and I, but we’d always hold each other at the end of each night like, "Oh god, we made it through another day".

We were very supportive of each other and how we were feeling. We could bicker quite a bit because we were so tired, but we did feel like a team. We loved Raffy so much and all we wanted was for him to feel comfortable and happy.

I know a lot of couples might go the other way but for some reason it worked, and we really bonded over that, how hard it was.

 

Pregnancy number two

When I had Peppy, she fed straight away, so that was a relief.

I thought, 'Brilliant, she doesn’t have reflux or a tongue tie. I’ve finally got a normal baby.' She was a lot happier and didn’t cry all night in hospital, which was a relief as I was sharing a room again.

Then she started getting really sniffly about two weeks in. I was berating anyone who came to visit who had a slight cold, thinking it was their fault, so I banned visitors for a bit. It was January and there were lots of bugs about.

peppy-baby
peppy-baby

Sally's daughter Peppy as a baby

I realised a few weeks in that she still had this cold. I Googled it thinking it was weird – maybe she had an allergy?

That’s when I discovered silent reflux. It’s not as obvious because they’re not vomiting but they are swallowing it down and it’s very mucusy. At night we’d hear her swallowing a lot beside us in the cot.

I didn’t bother with the GP because I knew that it would take months, so I went back to our paediatrician who prescribed omeprazole. She said it was likely reflux ran in the family after Raffy had it so badly.

Because Peppy wasn’t vomiting, she managed to keep the omeprazole down. It was a lot more straightforward. I wouldn’t say it was instant as she still seemed quite uncomfortable, but again, by about nine months she went off the medication and didn’t seem to need it any more. Peppy’s reflux was nowhere near as bad as Raffy’s.

family-holiday
family-holiday

Enjoying a family holiday

 

Reflecting on the baby stage

Looking back, it feels a bit like a fog. You forget. I almost wish I’d kept a diary so I could help others, as I’ve had people message me since and it’s hard to remember what really worked – I was so tired.

I feel quite sad that I had a very different baby experience to others. That wonderful newborn baby bubble of love that people experience – I didn’t feel like that at all.

There are times when I think I’d like another child, but I know reflux may happen again and I’m too tired and too old to go through it now.

I remember the pediatrician asked if I suffered from reflux as a baby and I said I didn’t think so. But then my mum dug out my baby book and when I was at around five or six months she wrote,‘Sal has finally stopped being sick’. So I must have been a sicky baby to a degree. Apparently I was known as ‘Cryey Sal’ as well.

In those days, there was no internet and if you’d tried to book a GP appointment over a crying baby they’d probably laugh you out the door.

Even if it is something that will get better, why not help the baby while they are uncomfortable?

sally-bett-husband-kids
sally-bett-husband-kids

The family in happy times

 

Advice to other mums

I would say that you know your own baby. You know if they are uncomfortable, and you know that it’s not just you going mad and being overtired. You know if something’s not right. Get seen.

I can’t advise to go to a private paediatrician like we did because most people couldn’t afford that – certainly we couldn’t really at the time, but I was just so desperate that I didn’t care.

I would say put pressure on your GP. I did. Don’t let them laugh you out the door and say all babies cry or all babies are sick.

And join the Facebook groups – they are so helpful and they made me realise that I wasn’t going mad. The Facebook group UK Baby Colic and Reflux Support is a good one. It always made me feel really emotional when someone would leave the group and say they were now reflux clear. I’m still on the group so I can dip in occasionally and offer advice. It’s a wonderful support network.

If you are a parent going through this now, I want you to know that it DOES get better and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

At the time, every day felt like a year for us but please know it’s not forever; your baby WILL outgrow it, and you WILL get through it.

I remember on one of my lowest days, I was walking around Bethnal Green with Raffy wailing in the pram, tears streaming down my face. I had just had a run in with a woman in Tesco who had kindly asked Raffy: ‘Isn’t mummy feeding you?’

Then I walked round a corner and saw this poster with the words 'This Too Shall Pass'. I had this amazing wave of relief, like it was a message from the universe when I needed it the most. And I cried with relief. I want people to know that this too shall pass.

 

Tips to ease reflux by The Parent and Baby Coach Heidi Skudder

Heidi advises: "If you suspect baby is suffering from any kind of reflux then the advice generally is as follows…"

Aim to hold baby upright for at least 15-20 minutes after feeds

This can help the feed settle and allow baby to be more comfortable afterwards too. If this is before sleep, it may mean they fall asleep on your shoulder before then transferring them into their cot or basket.

Ensure baby is well winded

Air intake whilst feeding is one of the most common causes of reflux and minimising the trapped air that they are left with after feeds can stop reflux occurring quite so much. If baby is happy to, winding baby during a feed, after a feed and then several times again in their awake time can be really helpful at keeping on top of any trapped wind. Try different winding positions too, such as over the shoulder, on the knee, and make sure baby’s spine is straight which then helps them with bringing up the wind.

Feed on their left side

If babies are fed (both breast and bottle) on the side lying position on their left, this can really help with reflux occurring. Changing up feeding positions to create a deeper latch can also prove very useful.

Stir, don’t shake

Formula made by shaking the powder in the water will contain much more air than formula that is shaken, with a sterile spoon. Just prepping baby formula in this way can make a big difference to baby’s reflux.

Address the root cause

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your baby’s reflux is to look at why it is happening. Reflux does not just occur on its own, it is a symptom and by looking into this, you are much more likely to be able to ease the symptoms. Whilst there are multiple causes of reflux, generally the main two are:

Air Intake whilst feeding

A baby who does not latch well, due to a tongue tie, tension, or high palette, will take in more air whilst feeding. Whilst you can work hard on winding them, actually perfecting the latch and ensuring they do not have a tongue tie which is causing a feeding challenge would be an even more effective root to helping your baby become more comfortable.

Gut producing wind

If the digestive system is trying to break down a food that it cannot easily digest, this will cause wind in the gut and therefore reflux in a baby. Babies born with more sensitive digestive systems can have issues with proteins in formula milk and in breast milk – so exploring whether your baby has any sensitivity or intolerance to certain foods groups (dairy for example) and be a big help in making baby more comfortable.

Heidi soke to HELLO! In conjunction with thebabyshow.co.uk, the UK's Leading Baby & Parenting Shows in London ExCel, London Olympia, and the Birmingham NEC. Everything for Bump, Baby & You Under One Roof.