Heartburn is one of the symptoms of indigestion and is common in pregnancy, partly due to the hormonal fluctuations in the first trimester and the growing womb pressing on the stomach as the baby develops.
As well as hormones and added pressure from a growing womb, heartburn can be caused by lifestyle and diet habits. By making changes to your lifestyle and diet you can better avoid heartburn triggers and manage heartburn pain and discomfort.
You are at a higher risk of suffering from indigestion and heartburn in pregnancy if:
- This isn’t your first pregnancy
- You have suffered from indigestion and heartburn previous to your pregnancy
- You are in the later stages of your pregnancy (from 27 weeks onwards )
Symptoms of heartburn in pregnancy
The main symptom of heartburn is pain or a feeling of discomfort in your chest (usually behind the breastbone) - the same as if you weren’t pregnant. Symptoms are most commonly felt soon after drinking or eating, however there can sometimes be a delay between eating a meal and developing indigestion.
You may experience heartburn at any point during your pregnancy, although your symptoms may be more frequent and severe during later pregnancy, from 27 weeks1 onwards. As well as pain in your upper abdomen, heartburn may cause the following:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Burning feeling in the chest or throat
- Tightening feeling in the chest or throat
- Sore throat
When to seek medical help?
Heartburn is very common but can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as a stomach ulcer.
If your heartburn continues to persist or you are worried about it, you may want to book in an appointment with a GP or midwife. Other symptoms to look out for that could require further medical attention include:
- Symptoms developing for the first time in mid or later life
- Symptoms persisting for more than 7 days
- Abdominal pain before or after meals
- Persistent feeling of fullness, bloating or flatulence
- Nausea or vomiting - particularly if it has bright red blood or dark brown bits in it
- Ongoing loss of appetite/continued unexplained weight loss
- Persistent diarrhoea, constipation or any alteration in bowel habit
- Change in stools (bowel motions) especially if they become black, dark red, pale or contain mucus (slime)
- Bleeding or pain when you pass a stool
- Generally feeling tired, lethargic or unwell in association with any abdominal symptoms
Causes of heartburn in pregnancy
The two main causes of heartburn in pregnancy are:
- Hormonal changes during pregnancy
The surge in the hormone progesterone causes muscles to relax. This includes the sphincter (ring of muscle) at the entrance to the stomach. When this relaxes, stomach acids are able to travel back up into the oesophagus (food pipe) causing painful heartburn.
- The developing foetus physically putting pressure on your digestive tract
During the latter stages of pregnancy symptoms can be caused by the growing womb (uterus). As the baby grows it physically putting pressure on your digestive tract.
Other causes & triggers of heartburn during pregnancy
Heartburn can tend to have similar triggers such as lifestyle and diet choices. A healthy diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for anyone, but when pregnant it is vital. Being mindful of what you eat during pregnancy will help your baby develop and grow, as well as reduce the chances of heartburn.
The key heartburn triggers to watch out for when pregnant include:
- Black pepper, garlic, raw onions and other spicy foods
- Citrus fruits and products, such as oranges and orange juice
- Coffee and caffeinated drinks, including soda
- Large meals
- Fatty foods
- Late night meals
How to get rid of heartburn while pregnant
Now the various heartburn triggers have been identified, making changes to your lifestyle and diet is one of the most effective ways to help reduce the chances of suffering from heartburn whilst pregnant. Here are some tips for avoiding indigestion and heartburn:
- Keep your weight in check
- There is no need to “eat for two” when pregnant - eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day
- Take your time eating - chew every mouthful slowly, this will help break down the food into smaller pieces which aids digestion
- Avoid spicy, acidic and fatty food as these can aggravate the stomach lining and cause more stomach acid to be produced
- Sit up straight when you eat – avoid lying on the sofa or bed if you can help it
- Loosen clothes or belts that are too tight, try opting for loose-fitting maternity wear
- Don't eat late or on the run – make time for your meals
- Try not to take big gulps of liquid, instead sipping
- If you are prone to night time symptoms prop yourself up slightly in bed
- Cut down on alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks
Consider over-the-counter (OTC) medication
If some of these lifestyle changes still aren’t helping, you could try an over the counter option by reaching out to healthcare providers. If symptoms are severe or prolonged you should consult a doctor or pharmacist.
*This article is meant for educational purposes. All information presented is not meant to diagnose or prescribe.
Article published 25 March 2021