When you’re pregnant, every little pain and niggle can have you frantically heading online, to try to figure out just what is going on in there – and whether your baby is OK. So if you suddenly start experiencing burning chest pain, it can be cause for alarm. However, before you panic, try to take some deep breaths and relax. This kind of pain is most commonly associated with heartburn.
‘Heartburn – also known as indigestion or acid reflux – is a fairly common symptom of pregnancy, but one that can cause quite a bit of discomfort for expectant mums,’ explains Ellie Cockburn, Midwife at The Portland Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK.
Causes of heartburn during pregnancy
But what makes heartburn so common during pregnancy?
‘Heartburn can occur during pregnancy for a number of reasons,’ explains Cockburn. 'It can be caused by the normal changes in hormones due to pregnancy. The increase in progesterone in the body when expecting can cause the valve between the stomach and the oesophagus to relax, which allows acid from the stomach to pass back into the oesophagus and irritate the lining.
‘It can also be caused by the baby pressing against the stomach, potentially pushing contents back up into the oesophagus. So, unsurprisingly, heartburn is more common later in pregnancy, particularly during the third trimester, because your baby is getting bigger and is more likely to put pressure on the intestines and stomach.’
Symptoms of heartburn during pregnancy
Cockburn reveals that the symptoms of heartburn you may experience can include the following:
- Chest pains, comparable with burning sensations
- Feeling full, heavy or bloated
- Burping frequently
- Feeling nauseous and/or vomiting
- Bringing up food
‘These symptoms usually appear after recently eating or drinking something, but there is sometimes a delay’ says Cockburn.
‘So if you are experiencing symptoms but it has been a while since your last meal, don’t rule heartburn out,' she adds. 'However, if you’re also experiencing difficulty eating or keeping food down, weight loss or stomach pains, you should see your midwife or GP.’
How to ease heartburn during pregnancy
Before you despair, there are a number of simple and gentle lifestyle and dietary changes you can make, to help ease your heartburn symptoms.
• Portion sizes and pregnancy heartburn
Eating large portions at mealtimes can play havoc with your digestive system at the best of times, let alone when you’re pregnant and have a baby squishing your insides, too. Cockburn suggests that eating little and often is the key.
‘Ditching the breakfast, lunch and dinner routine and instead eating more regular small, healthy meals throughout the day can often ease symptoms,’ she says. ‘It’s also important to remember to sit up straight while eating, to reduce pressure on the stomach.’
• Pregnancy heartburn culprit foods
When it comes to heartburn, there are a few classic ‘culprit foods’ that you may want to consider cutting out of your diet, to help alleviate symptoms.
‘Classic culprits include citrus fruits, tomatoes, chocolate, fatty and spicy foods, as well as onions and garlic,’ explains Dr Geetha Venkat, from The Harley Street Clinic. ‘What you drink also needs to be examined. We would suggest you steer clear of tea and coffee -including decaf, as well as fizzy drinks and alcohol.’
• Keep a pregnancy heartburn food diary
If you’ve tried cutting out the more obvious culprits above, but are still suffering with heartburn, it may be worth noting down what you are eating and drinking at each meal, to see if you can see any correlation between certain meal ingredients and your symptoms.
‘You might want to keep a food diary, to see if you can notice patterns and triggers, because it might be something you hadn’t even considered that is causing you distress,’ suggests Dr Venkat.
• Late-night snacking and pregnancy heartburn
Yes, we know that late-night snacking can become more frequent during pregnancy, as eating little and often can help keep nausea and sickness at bay during the first trimester, growing a baby can make you more hungry (it’s hard work, after all). However, if you’re suffering with heartburn, it’s important not to eat too close to bedtime.
‘Try not to have too many late-night snacks, because this won’t aid digestion or ease issues,’ agrees Dr Venkat.
• Your sleeping position and pregnancy heartburn
Sleeping well and being heavily pregnant are two things that do not usually go hand in hand. However, it’s important to get as much rest as possible – and the position you lie in when drifting off to sleep is important when trying to combat heartburn.
‘Keeping your head and shoulders more elevated when going to bed can stop stomach acid from rising while you sleep,’ advises Cockburn.
• Smoking and drinking and pregnancy heartburn
Obviously it goes without saying that both smoking and drinking during pregnancy can be harmful to your growing baby, so hopefully they are habits you’ve already ditched.
‘Both smoking and drinking alcohol are associated with heartburn during pregnancy,’ says Cockburn. ‘Both are advised against when expecting, as they can increase the risk of long-term health consequences for the baby.’
So if you haven’t stopped already, now is definitely the time to do so.
• Clothing and pregnancy heartburn
Your growing baby is already putting pressure on your stomach and digestive system, so make sure you’re not adding to the discomfort by wearing clothing that’s too tight or restrictive.
‘Wearing loose clothing can be more comfortable and in advanced pregnancy, even your T-shirts may be stretched rather tightly over your chest,’ says leading hypnobirthing teacher and founder of KG Hypnobirthing Katharine Graves. ‘Flowing tops feel much more comfortable now.’
• Ginger and pregnancy heartburn
‘Ginger is very calming on the digestive system and is an anti-inflammatory, so can reduce muscle pain and soreness,’ says Graves. ‘It is also an antioxidant and may lower blood sugars with implications for gestational diabetes.
'Ginger may lower heart disease risk factors, which is worth considering in connection with raised blood pressure and possible preeclampsia. Since prevention is always better than cure, it makes sense to add ginger to your diet when pregnant -and indeed when you are not pregnant! It is best in root form, but can also be added in powdered form for convenience.’
• Stress and pregnancy heartburn
Stress can make us feel tense, anxious and out of alignment. It therefore goes without saying that relieving that tension and stress with relaxation techniques could help to ease not just the worry and tension in your mind, but also any tension you may be holding onto in your body – including your digestive system.
‘Tension often exacerbates the problem – the body will work better when we feel calm and relaxed,’ reassures Graves. ‘Use a good pregnancy relaxation audio, such as Colour and Calmness by KGHypnobirthing, to help you remain calm and at ease. You can also use a positive statement as you go to sleep each night, and at other times too, such as, “My body produces just the right amount of acid I need in pregnancy”, or “My digestive system adapts to my pregnant body”.’
• Herbal remedies and pregnancy heartburn
‘There are herbal remedies to help you relax and an excellent one is chamomile,’ says Graves. ‘Why not drink chamomile tea to calm your digestive system and also your mind?
'Essential oils can be helpful too. Lavender is a very safe essential oil, even for topical use, and is the classic oil for calm and relaxation. It is generally used in a diffuser, but a few drops in a mug of hot water work well, or else you can add it to your bath.’
Medicines to help with pregnancy heartburn
If lifestyle changes are not alleviating symptoms, or you need help in managing heartburn, Cockburn recommends that you speak with your GP or midwife. They may suggest you try:
This medicine is often available over the counter and is taken to neutralise stomach acid.
These prevent the acid in your stomach rising to your throat.
What if nothing fixes pregnancy heartburn?
Hopefully the above advice will help to ease your heartburn, and you can go on to enjoy the rest of your pregnancy. However, if you’re still struggling with heartburn symptoms, what should you do?
First of all, try not to worry. Your heartburn symptoms are not harmful. ‘If things don’t improve with diet and lifestyle changes, then we would strongly suggest seeking medical help,’ advises Dr Venkat.
‘While it isn’t pleasant, heartburn won’t harm you or your baby. However, in very rare cases, gastric problems may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, so speak to your midwife or GP, especially if your symptoms are sudden or severe.’
Last updated: 18-09-19