Thickened Feeds For Babies
Caring for a baby with reflux can be stressful and exhausting. You may wonder what you can do to help. One thing you may have heard about is thickened feeds.
There are a variety of thickeners available. For example, there are commercial milk thickeners, rice cereal, ‘cornflour’ (made from corn or wheat) or bean gum.
The idea behind the use of thickened feeds is to make feeds heavier, to try to keep them down in the stomach and not rise back up the oesophagus and out the mouth.
But, do thickened feeds actually help a baby with reflux? Can they cause any problems?
Here are 5 important facts about thickened feeds:
#1: No Formula Has A Place Treating Reflux In Breastfed Babies
This point may be shocking or surprising to hear.
If you're formula feeding or mixed feeding, and your baby has been diagnosed with gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), anti-reflux (AR) formula may have been suggested.
AR formula differs from standard cows’ milk based formula, because it has added thickener (e.g. some of the lactose is replaced with starch). Unfortunately, formula companies are well known for making big claims about their products, and AR formula is no different.
There is no reputable scientific evidence that AR formula actually helps babies with reflux.
In addition, many parents find AR formula difficult to make up, as they find it tends to cause clumping.
It’s not recommended to use this type of formula (or any formula) as a treatment for reflux in a breastfed baby.
Some babies with reflux may actually have a cows’ milk protein sensitivity. This is because reflux can actually be a sign of a cows’ milk protein sensitivity. In such a situation, AR formula (or even lactose-free formula) will not help, because both they both contain cows’ milk protein.
If a breastfed baby has a cows’ milk protein (or any other food) sensitivity, a dietitian can help plan a diet suitable for a mother. For a formula fed baby with a cows’ milk protein (or any other food) sensitivity, a paediatrician can help prescribe a suitable formula.
It's very important to find a medical professional who can correctly diagnose such problems. Lactose intolerance is often wrongly diagnosed for a range of problems too, including cows' milk protein sensitivity. Find out more here.
#2: Thickened Feeds Don’t Stop The Reflux
According to Australia’s peak health body, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), thickening of feeds “has some benefit in decreasing the amount regurgitated, but is not effective in decreasing the number of episodes of GOR [gastro-oesophageal reflux] or acid exposure, and thus has no real place in the management of complicated GOR.”
In other words, thickeners can reduce how often a baby vomits, but not alter how often his stomach contents rises into his oesophagus.
Less vomiting is worthwhile if it’s deemed to be contributing to a baby not gaining enough weight. However, in babies who are healthy and growing well, thickeners are not recommended.
It has been hypothesised that rather than thickening feeds and making them sit in the stomach for longer, it may actually be better to have liquid move through the stomach more quickly, as this may minimise the possible window for it to reflux back up again.
#3: Thickened Feeds Cause Practical Problems For Breastfeeding
Obviously, breastmilk which is fed straight from the breast cannot be thickened.
Some breastfeeding mothers may have attempted to add thickener to their expressed breastmilk (EBM). This doesn’t work since the live enzymes in the EBM breaks down the starches that make up many thickeners. Adding thickeners to EBM also changes the carbohydrate balance of the EBM.
#4: Some Thickeners May Actually Make A Baby Feel Worse
Some thickeners make actually make a baby feel worse. For example some thickeners have been associated with:
#5: Thickeners Feeds May Be Dangerous
The NHMRC indicates that feed thickeners have some adverse effects, such as increasing the length of time it takes for feeds to pass through the stomach, and even increasing reflux.
For premature babies, it’s even more important to not add anything to their feeds unless under medical advice. Some commercial thickeners have been linked to an increased risk of necrotising enterocolitis, a serious and life-threatening condition where tissue in the intestines becomes inflamed and dies.
It’s important not to give a baby thickened feeds unless advised by a doctor. Since gastro-oesophageal reflux disease can be associated with medical problems, exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. without any thickeners, etc) is advisable whenever medically possible. This is because lack of exclusive breastfeeding carries risks.