Don’t be surprised if you have heartburn for the first time when you’re pregnant. Heartburn and indigestion are common in pregnancy, in fact, so common that pregnant women have an 8 in 10 chance of getting it at some point. But try not to be concerned, heartburn isn’t related to the heart, but rather the gastrointestinal system, also called the gut.
Why is heartburn so common in pregnancy?
Blame those pregnancy hormones, again! Progesterone, the hormone responsible for relaxing muscles, causes the valve or sphincter at the top of the stomach to also relax. This means the acidic stomach contents which normally stay in the stomach, are pushed up into the oesophagus (food pipe). The lining of the stomach is designed to cope with acid and gastric enzymes but the oesophagus is not. That’s why heartburn is so uncomfortable.
The other cause for pregnancy heartburn is that the growing uterus puts extra pressure on the mother’s stomach and intestines. There simply isn’t enough room for her organs to sit in their usual positions, which causes changes in stomach emptying and the time it takes for her gut to digest food.
Many women find they experience heartburn closer to their due date. The second and third trimester especially, are times when heartburn can be at its worst.
What does heartburn feel like?
You’ll know if you have heartburn, particularly if you’ve had it before. Most people describe it as feeling like a burning sensation in the chest, behind their breastbone. It’s not uncommon to also feel heartburn at the back of the throat. You may get a sense of needing of wanting to stretch, as if your food pipe isn’t long enough or you want to be a few centimetres taller!
You may also get a sour or bitter taste in your mouth and find it difficult to swallow. Stomach acid tastes acidic and unpleasant. Some people describe heartburn as having a sense of food being stuck in their chest or the back of their throat.
What can I do if I have heartburn?
First, speak with your maternity care provider to make sure what you’re feeling is heartburn. It’s important to rule out other causes for chest pain and discomfort. The best way to manage heartburn is to try to prevent it in the first place.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day and avoid eating large meals.
- Wait for at least 30 minutes before lying down after eating.
- Use pillows to position yourself more upright in bed.
- Avoid eating spicy, fatty/greasy or very flavoured foods. A bland diet can really help.
- Avoid wearing tight clothing. Loosen your bra and wear comfortable, elasticised pants or skirts.
- Try to limit the foods you’re craving. Over indulging in foods which aren’t in your normal diet can trigger an episode of heartburn.
- Avoid drinking fruit juices, especially orange or lemon juice.
Treatment for heartburn
Try for the more natural remedies first to see if they’re helpful. Drink a glass of milk or eat some yoghurt. It may also help to add a small amount of honey to a glass of warm milk. Try eating a banana or an apple and chew them really well before swallowing. Some ‘fizzy’ style lollies may also relieve mild heartburn. These often contain sodium bi-carbonate which is alkaline substance.
Antacids are very effective and are available over the counter from pharmacies and supermarkets. But speak with a healthcare professional before taking any medications when you’re pregnant. Some antacids contain high levels of sodium and/or aluminum, which aren’t considered safe during pregnancy. If you do take antacids, follow the manufacture’s recommendations for pregnant women.
Written for GAIA by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, August 2023.