Many women experience the pain and irritation of heartburn for the first time during pregnancy. Heartburn is caused by acid reflux or indigestion, when the acid from the stomach creeps up the esophagus, and is characterized by a burning sensation that usually extends from the lower throat to the bottom of the breastbone.
Heartburn during pregnancy is caused by both hormonal and physical changes in your body. Your placenta produces the hormone progesterone, which relaxes the smooth muscles of the uterus and the valve that separates the esophagus from the stomach, allowing stomach acids to seep back up in to the esophagus, which causes the burning sensation. Progesterone also slows down the movement of the stomach muscles, making digestion sluggish. And as your pregnancy progresses and your baby crowds your abdominal cavity, digestion is obstructed and stomach acids are forced up into your throat.
Heartburn is generally harmless and tends to come and go throughout pregnancy, often intensifying in the third trimester. However, most heartburn disappears as soon as the baby is born when your hormone levels and the shape and size of your uterus all return to normal.
Here are some ways to avoid, and find relief from, heartburn during pregnancy (and after):
- Eat small meals frequently, instead of three larger ones.
- Take small mouthfuls and chew your food well.
- Help gravity move food through your system; avoid lying down right after eating.
- When you do lie down, lie on your right side. This position allows gravity to empty the stomach. You may also get relief by assuming a hands and knees position (on all fours), which allows gravity to pull your uterus away from the stomach. This allows the stomach contents to move more easily into the intestines rather than refluxing back into the esophagus.
- Pay attention to which foods aggravate your heartburn and avoid them. Rich or spicy dishes, chocolate, citrus and coffee are common culprits.
- Avoid fatty foods, which can take longer to digest.
- Avoid drinking large amounts of fluids with your meals. It's important to drink 8 to 10 glasses of water daily during pregnancy, but try to drink in between meals, not with meals.
- When sleeping, avoid lying flat on your back or side. Use a foam wedge or several pillows to prop yourself up or elevate the head of your bed if possible.
- Over-the-counter antacids may ease your discomfort. Some are high in sodium, so check with your doctor or midwife before taking one.
- Wear clothing that is loose around your abdomen and waist.