There’s nothing worse than seeing a baby inconsolably distressed, as parents of reflux babies know all too well. And whilst as parents, we usually know when something doesn’t seem quite right, it’s all-too-common to be told ‘it’ll pass’ when seeking advice. That’s why Alison Scott-Wright (also known as the Magic Sleep Fairy) has made it her life’s work to empower parents with information about silent reflux - so that everyone in the family can sleep a bit sounder. We sat down with Alison to find out everything there is to know about silent reflux in babies.
Mamamade: I just wanted to firstly say thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and to help parents in our community.
ASW: That’s ok! I’m so happy to help get the message out there to more mums, who can’t necessarily access the information that they need, anywhere else.
I’d love to learn a bit more about your journey. You’ve written a bestselling book, you have a really engaged following on social media - how did you get to this stage?
ASW: Well, I never planned any of it, really! It all happened organically. Back in the day - we’re talking the very early 90s - I was actually looking after the elderly. My children were young, and I had set up a home care agency. It was great, I loved it! But I felt a bit like it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. Through my work, I met a Director of NHS Poole hospital who was pregnant with twin girls and she offered me a years contract as her ‘mother’s help’. That was my first experience of working with babies. I established a routine as I’d done with my children, which I thought was fairly normal, and then by 9 weeks old they were sleeping through the night. I honestly thought this was ‘normal’ and what babies naturally do, but soon discovered many other babies were not so easily following this natural pattern.
From that one connection, I was introduced to more families and that’s how my shift into maternity nursing started. I quickly became known as someone who would easily get babies to sleep through the night. Not through any rigid or strict schedule, but more by allowing their natural sleep and feeding patterns to develop....and nearly 25 years on, I’ve never looked back. I’m so fortunate to work with babies, I have adored every single one of them and feel blessed to have gained the deepest trust from all those parents that I’ve come in contact with.
And how did you develop your expertise in baby reflux - particularly silent reflux in babies?
ASW: I undertook much training, from maternity nursing to NCT instruction, and read every resource I could find. I went on to specialise in caring for multiples and have worked with many sets of twins and triplets over the years. I didn’t fully understand reflux at first, but the more babies I worked with, the more I started to come across babies who wouldn’t sleep, or couldn’t sleep, and just seemed uncomfortable and unable to sleep.
I didn’t agree with the dismissive term of ‘colic’ - or the people that would say, ‘‘they’ll grow out of it”. I was thinking “these babies are in pain”, “there’s something wrong!” I started researching, went to a few different doctors with babies of clients, and started realising that it was in fact acid reflux that was the problem.
When I met a wonderful paediatric GI in London, I started to learn a tonne - he actually wrote the foreword in my book! That’s where I started to notice such an injustice - the injustice of parents being dismissed. Our most precious commodity in the world are just dismissed with “oh it’s just a bit of colic, it’s what babies do, they cry. Everything’s normal, it’s just you. It’s your first, you’re just being over-anxious” - I couldn’t bear it!
Absolutely. Because as adults, we’d never tolerate our pain being dismissed like that! So how can you tell the difference between colic and reflux?
ASW: The term ‘colic’ that is used - and is still thrown about - is really just a nondescript term for abdominal pain. There’s absolutely no medical definition for the term ‘colic’, it doesn’t mean anything! There’s no cure for colic because it’s not a medical condition.
Over time and experience become my mission to change that ethos away from ‘it’s colic!’ and get people to listen.
And so that’s when you wrote your book, The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan?
ASW: I never planned to write a book, but over the course of my first 10-12 years, all my clients would ask why I hadn’t written one yet! I started to consider it, but I knew I wanted to make sure I could say what I know and believe in, and put the information out there in a responsible, measured way with facts to back it up. Then one day, I received a phone call from a publisher and 3 weeks later I had a book deal and The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan was published in January 2010.
That’s such an amazing story! I’d watch that movie. Do you find more people are coming out saying their baby has silent reflux?
ASW: Yes, absolutely. And so many are being misdiagnosed or told the wrong thing.
These days, nearly every mother I speak with ends up in tears. They say, “I can’t believe I’ve finally found someone who understands, who explains all these things that have been going on, who doesn’t dismiss me, or says that I’ve been going insane!”
And what are the main symptoms of silent reflux in babies to look out for?
ASW: If you find your baby’s not following the natural pattern, that’s the first hint. If you’re having real breastfeeding problems, they’re really clingy and you can’t ever put them down, they don’t seem happy, they’re arching their backs and screaming lots - nine times out of 10 there’s an underlying problem. Babies are fairly chilled, relaxed little things. It shouldn’t be that difficult to feed a baby. It shouldn't be that difficult to get them to sleep - there’s a reason for this behaviour.
So you would say, if a child is having sleeping issues that’s definitely a sign of reflux?
ASW: Not definitely. It could be. I always say they should check: 1. Are you on the right feeding schedule (i.e. age appropriate?) 2. How are daytime naps? 3. Are there so many sleep crutches that they’re actually hindering sleep? For example, have they got a dummy they’re waking up and looking for?But sometimes you have to look further - because if they are constantly waking up for milk or the dummy, it could be because they want to suck and swallow to wash away the pain of silent reflux. This is why I say to take a step back and look at the symptoms. In a chapter of my book there’s a whole list of them. If your baby ticks more than a few boxes, then you need to take a step back and ask if there’s an underlying issue.
With the majority of people I work with who come to me with babies who aren’t sleeping or feeding and constantly crying, once we address the underlying issues we really do very little sleep training. If the baby is comfortable and confident enough, they’ll naturally sleep.
What are some alternative treatments for silent reflux in babies you would recommend? Things like Cranial osteopathy, probiotics?
ASW: When someone approaches me with a young baby in the first few weeks, showing signs of distress and acid reflux - for instance, maybe they’re vomiting, or screaming, or not feeding well - there are a number of natural methods that I reach for first.
The first step is always about trying to follow the schedule, rather than putting the baby on the boob every time they scream. I talk to them about how the baby’s sleeping and how to get the baby sleeping better, because sleep aids gut health. Next, we look at the baby’s feeding schedule - trying to stretch feeds, rather than snack feeding, because that can sometimes cause an overactive gut that will produce too much acid.There certainly are a number of things I consider before going down the road of seeing a pediatric gastro, who might say they need a medical intervention like omeprazole. I try to avoid those, but a lot of the people who come to me are quite extreme cases. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to reach for the medicine in the right cases.
Often it comes down to looking at the diet of the baby. I know they’re only drinking milk, but are they intolerant to what’s in the milk? That’s probably one of the biggest misdiagnoses of over-prescribing medicine when perhaps they might not need it.
In the the early weeks if the mother is breastfeeding, I consider what she’s eating and discuss restricting her diet, perhaps trying to help the baby’s gut health by helping the mother’s gut health with some probiotics and bone broth, which are natural healers for leaky gut syndrome. There are a number of things we’d reach for before you end up in front of a paediatric gastro.
If reflux in babies goes untreated, are there any long-term repercussions?
ASW: Yes. I have definitely seen some quite severe health issues in the longer term that are caused from underlying acid reflux in the early weeks and months and years of life that was never managed or treated. Typically, a lot of babies, as they grow into toddlers will end up with ear, nose and throat problems and have grommets put in because they have ‘glue ear’. They might have a tonsillectomy or adenectomy, coughs and colds they can’t shake, bronchiolitis etc. That’s often because of acid damage. Acid comes up the gut, it wears away and irritates and inflames all the mucous linings in the pipes - so the oesophagus, the back of the throat, the nasal passages, the sinuses and the adenoids can all be affected long-term from acid-damage. I work closely alongside an ENT Doctor in London, and it’s a well-known fact that ENT problems can be a result of untreated acid reflux.
That’s so mind-blowing. It’s so interesting how a mother really knows best. There’s an internal inkling, and they’re always right at the end of the day.
ASW: They do! I’m a very passionate advocate of maternal mental health. I have always fought the corner of those parents who feel dismissed, judged and patronised. I will always believe a mother who says something is not right!If anyone ever asks how you’re feeding your baby, all that needs to be said is “with milk and love”. Nobody should ever be judged. The mental health of women needs to be supported. That first step of going to the GP and saying “I think there’s something wrong with my baby”, only to be patted on the head, shooed away and told their baby is fine - it’s demoralising. I find it horrifying that it’s happening in the world of motherhood.
What are the next steps for you? What can our community look forward to from you?
ASW: I’m launching a new website by the beginning of December, and I’ll have audio recordings that people can access. I say the same thing time and again, so I’m going to package up a whole reflux audio set with different topics. There will be one on sleep as well. Audio chapters you can access depending on what information you need. I just want the world to hear the message and know that they are not alone!
For more advice from Alison or to find out more about her journey and story follow:
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