I reached out to experts The Behaviourists to ask if they could explore the topic of behavioural problems in babies and toddlers that have suffered, or are suffering with reflux. From personal experience, I know that silent reflux has affected the temperament of my 8 month old daughter, but there was nothing online to give me any advice or information, or even just to acknowledge that this might be ‘a thing’.

Katy Roberts, founder of The Behaviourists, is a qualified Cognitive Behaviour Therapy practitioner, Master Practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming, Coaching, Time Line Therapy and Hypnotherapy. Katy also has degrees in teaching and special educational needs with an NVQ level 5 in Health and Social Care. Katy gives us the low-down on how to deal with behavioural problems that might arise as a result of reflux. 

Firstly, there is no judgement in this piece. I’ve been a full time working mum with a child with significant behaviour difficulties. I’ve been there, done it and got the t-shirt a million times, so I know just how hard parenting can be especially when there is a chronic medical condition involved.

Reflux is fairly common in young babies with 47% occurrence of one or more vomiting episodes per day in one month olds reducing to just 6.4% by the age of 7 months. Great news for the majority but this doesn’t really help those parents where there is a significant impact on daily life and whose children continue to suffer.

Many parents in this position feel judged and that they are failures as parents. They are struggling to get people to believe just how bad things are and have family and friends who don’t understand. They become socially isolated. Advice is often confusing and conflicting.

As if that isn’t bad enough, a study by Floyd and Gallagher (1997) determined that significant behaviour problems had a greater impact on parental stress than the type of disability. Child behaviour problems were associated with the greatest parent and family problems.

There is no denying if I was suffering from reflux (and acid indigestion is bad enough) I would be looking for ways to vent my frustration and pain but the key here is to be PROACTIVE not REACTIVE.

Acceptable vs Unacceptable

Regardless of how much pain we are in or how difficult things get there are behaviours that are just not acceptable. Hitting for instance and any spitting or biting that goes along with that. Every family has their own criteria for what is or isn’t acceptable and children need to be clear about this and understand that this is so regardless of their or anyone else’s issues. It’s important to be clear about these from the beginning and ensure that everyone in the family or care circle knows and understands.

Rules and boundaries

As a social group, and this includes families, we function well when there are mutual ‘rules’ and boundaries (If you don’t like the concept of rules then expectations works just as well). Children respond well to boundaries and like to live up to expectations. The thing with boundaries though is they need to stay firm and not move. Once as a parent, you have established that basically “No means No” in a nutshell, your children will stop trying to get around it (not completely but mostly)! This is not to say we can’t be individual or unique because at the end of the day we are and that’s cause for celebration! This is based on mutual respect for each other and helps us to feel relaxed and secure because we know where the lines are drawn..

Structure and routine

When we have things in our lives that are unpredictable such as a chronic illness it is vital we can rely on the support of structure and routine. This helps us to relax when we are trying to deal with the unexpected or the more difficult. That’s not to say we can’t be spontaneous but there’s a time and place for that!

Patterns of behaviour

You know your child better than anyone. Yes, I’ll say that again – you know your child better than anyone! Be aware of patterns of behaviour as these can be good indicators of other factors such as a change in meds or a different food choice. Any changes are worth noting and see what might be affecting them.

Coping strategies

The brain is a pattern recognition machine and thrives on prediction and response so when we go into threat (ie reflux pain) our reptilian brain focuses on keeping us safe. It goes to the last known information and uses that so it’s important to establish how we respond and react. So find out what works for you and your child:

  • Cuddles and stories
  • Massage
  • Hot bubble bath
  • Distraction on really bad days like a trip to a quiet park
  • Focus on what they do eat, not what they don’t
  • When they do eat, don’t make a fuss!

Looking out for yourself

I know it’s easier said than done but as a parent you need to think about yourself too. You don’t need to do it all. Even if you just have a trusted friend or family member come round for an hour so you can get a bath! Connect with others in the same situation, there are useful support groups out there.

Finally, there’s no blame here…..

 It is easy to overcompensate and change our behaviour in the face of our child’s pain, distress and difficulties. So some inner reflection and awareness of how our child’s condition influences how we behave and what our expectations are.

“If you’re going through hell, just keep going.” Winston Churchill

Katy Roberts, Director and Co Founder of The Behaviourists

READ MORE: REFLUX: LEADING EXPERT DR SHAH ANSWERS YOUR QUESTIONS

Courtesy of the fabulous support website, Reflux.au, here are a couple of quotes you may be able to relate to, as a parent of a child suffering with reflux and silent reflux. 

“I doubt very much his behaviour issues are caused by too much mollycoddling! I actually find that [my little boy] responds much better to a more sensitive approach and cuddles when he’s not himself – rather than the stern approach. I have tried both ways and being stern just sets him off more. Cuddles and understanding seems to be appreciated and this works much better. Sure toddlers have tantrums and it’s normal, but I would classify “normal” as a tantrum that is over with within 10 mins, and some kind of distraction or reasoning usually seems to work. Reflux tantrums are different and don’t resolve and seem to go on and off again all day. No amount of distraction or reasoning works – and cuddles seem to be the only thing that helps.” RISA Mum and volunteer

“My refluxer started hitting me across the face. Out of the blue. And thought it was funny. We implemented a naughty corner for the first time in our lives. She kept at it. Started clawing at my eyes becoming more and more vicious. It took 36 hours and a screaming, arching full blown reflux episode at bed time for me to realise it was because we’d halved her reflux meds two days before. Meds back to regular dosage. No more hitting, gouging etc. Back to normal happy child.” RISA Mum and volunteer

READ MORE: COWS’ MILK PROTEIN ALLERGY: Leading Expert Professor Neil Shah Answers Your Questions

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