Acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion are all names for the same thing – the symptoms you feel when stomach acids bubble up causing an intense burning sensation. Eight out of ten pregnant women experience heartburn, and all eight of them probably wish they didn’t! While it’s not harmful, it can feel horrible, but read on to find out how to make those gastric symptoms less ghastly.

What does acid reflux feel like?

Acid reflux, or indigestion, feels like a strong burning sensation in the chest – which is why it’s also known as heartburn. (It’s nothing to do with the heart, by the way.) The burning feeling might spread up into your throat. You might get bloating and feel uncomfortably full after eating even a small meal. Some women suffer from wind, burping and belching – just like a baby! You may feel a little sick and nauseous.

You might wonder why you ever got yourself into this. But just remember that all these symptoms will go once baby arrives and your body gets back to being itself.

Is acid reflux the same as heartburn and indigestion?

Yes, they’re all names for the same thing. Its official name is gastroesophageal reflux, commonly known as acid reflux. That uncomfortable feeling is caused by stomach acid backing up into your oesophagus – the muscular tube that links your mouth to your stomach, designed to transport food downwards, not upwards.

Even though it’s nothing to do with your heart, it’s also called heartburn because that’s just what it feels like – a burning sensation just behind your breastbone.

You may also come across the term Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD. This is a severe form of acid reflux. It has the same symptoms as pregnancy reflux, but unlike pregnancy heartburn, will not be cured by having a baby.

What causes heartburn in pregnancy? 

Even if they’ve never had indigestion before, many women experience it for the first time during pregnancy. The exact causes of pregnancy heartburn aren’t known, but changes in hormone levels and body shape are the likely culprits.

Pregnancy hormones, especially progesterone, cause the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve between your stomach and the tube leading to it) to relax. This means it no longer closes properly so stomach acid can travel back up, causing that burning feeling. 

Pregnancy acid reflux isn't all down to your hormones. During the later weeks of pregnancy your growing uterus is now causing increased pressure on your stomach and making the symptoms even worse. Just hang on to the thought that it’s all part of making a beautiful baby, and it won’t last!

What is silent reflux during pregnancy? 

If you’re pregnant and feel as though you’ve got a frog in your throat, or you have a hard to shake off phlegmy cough, chances are you might have silent reflux. This a less common kind of acid reflux with slightly different symptoms. Unlike acid reflux, where the acid from the stomach travels up into the oesophagus the acid moves into the pharynx, larynx, or voice box. Silent reflux is trickier to spot as the symptoms can feel just like a common cold or be mistaken for asthma or allergies.

Is pregnancy heartburn dangerous for me or my baby?

Heartburn may be intensely uncomfortable, but a bout of indigestion is nothing serious and won’t affect your baby in any way. The pain is all yours! But if you’re experiencing anything other than discomfort, do talk to your doctor or midwife just in case there’s a serious underlying condition.

How to deal with pregnancy heartburn and indigestion

There are lots of tried and tested ways of heading off an attack of heartburn, and with a little practice you’ll find what works for you.

  1. Become a grazer. Avoid large, heavy meals and eat little, light and often – nibble on something every three hours or so.
  2. Take your time over meals and don’t overload your stomach. And the more you chew, the better you digest.
  3. No midnight feasts. Avoid eating or drinking late at night or within three hours of bedtime.
  4. Try not to lie down after meals. Give yourself a chance to digest before you hit the horizontal.
  5. Drink between, not during meals.
  6. Avoid commonly identified triggers like fatty foods, garlic, spices, chocolate, drinks containing caffeine like coffee and tea, citrus, fizzy drinks and fruit juice. Keeping a food diary is a great way to find out what sets off your own acid reflux.
  7. Raise the head of your bed by 10-15 cm (you can use blocks to do this), or sleep propped up on lots of pillows. You’ll be letting gravity help your food go down.
  8. Sleep on your left side. It's a good idea during pregnancy anyway as it ensures the blood flow to the placenta is optimal. On top of that, it also helps reduce heartburn. Your stomach is on the left side of your abdomen. So if you sleep on that side, your stomach will be lower than your esophagus. That way stomach contents can't flow back into the esophagus as easily. And you can sleep more comfortably.
  9. Avoid an empty stomach. Balance is key during pregnancy. An overfull stomach is uncomfortable, but an empty one can also make you feel uncomfortable and worsen nausea and heartburn.
  10. Some prescribed medications can cause acid reflux or make it feel worse. Talk to your doctor about maybe taking a holiday from taking them or finding an alternative.
  11. Try acupuncture – it has been known to help with symptoms and could help you sleep better through them.

Always talk to your doctor or midwife if your heartburn is becoming a problem. They may be able to suggest an antacid that’s safe to use during pregnancy. It may not make the acid reflux disappear completely, but it could make it a little easier to live with.

When does heartburn start during pregnancy?

You may experience symptoms of indigestion or heartburn at any point during your pregnancy. But you’re more likely to notice them from the 12th week onwards.

Why treat heartburn and acid reflux during pregnancy?

Number one reason, pregnancy can be uncomfortable enough without the misery of acid reflux and heartburn. Severe heartburn can eventually irritate your esophagus. And indigestion can interrupt precious sleep. And when you’re ‘eating for two’ you don’t need anything to put you off your food.

If you’re experiencing severe chest pains and you're not sure it's acid reflux or heartburn, speak to a health professional or contact emergency services straightaway.

Medications against heartburn

Can I use heartburn medication during pregnancy?

If your symptoms are becoming a problem and you've tried all the lifestyle tips, then talk to your doctor or midwife about which medicines are safe to use while you’re pregnant.

Over the counter antacids are readily available. They work by coating the lining of the oesophagus and stomach and neutralising stomach acid and can be taken whenever you need them.

Can I take H2-blockers when I’m pregnant?

Histamine blockers, known as H2-blockers, are a more powerful group of drugs. They relieve heartburn by blocking the chemical signals that produce stomach acid, can last up to 12 hours and are designed to be taken regularly. You’ll find many H2-blockers sold over the counter, but always talk to your health professional before taking any medicines for your heartburn during pregnancy.

Is it OK to take Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) during pregnancy?

You may have read about PPIs – Proton Pump Inhibitors – as a treatment for heartburn during pregnancy. Like H2-blockers, these drugs also reduce the secretion of stomach acids. Most of these are considered safe in pregnancy, but they have to be prescribed by a doctor.

When should I go to hospital with acid reflux when I’m pregnant?

If your heartburn symptoms don’t go away with medicine, you’re in severe pain or vomiting blood, then it’s important to see a doctor straightaway. If the pain is just under your ribs on the right-hand side, there is a possibility it could be pre-eclampsia, a serious pregnancy condition which can feel just like heartburn.

How common is heartburn during pregnancy?

Eight out of ten women will experience some gastric symptoms during pregnancy. So if you’re dealing with the discomfort of acid reflux, you’ve got no shortage of fellow sufferers to talk to about it!

How can I find out more about heartburn during pregnancy? 

We hope you’ve found this article useful and you now a little more about heartburn during pregnancy than you did before. But the best place to go for information and advice about acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion during pregnancy will always be your doctor or midwife.