Baby burping: why, when and how

When we become parents we become skilled in a wide variety of things. Our role is so diverse that we give new meaning to the phrase ‘Jack of all trades’. One such skill is burping a baby. As simple as this may seem it is a very important role.

Some babies need a lot of help with burping while others need very little. It does not matter if you have a particularly gassy baby or not he or she will at some point need your help with burping.

Why do babies need to be burped?

The short answer to that question is ‘because they can’t do it themselves’.

Why? In babies a muscle called the upper esophageal sphincter is underdeveloped. This muscle usually relaxes when we swallow, to allow the passage of food and saliva etc., and when we burp, to allow the passage of gas. In newborns, however, this muscle doesn’t relax by itself when gas needs to pass. If the gas isn’t released as a burp, it makes its way into the intestines causing tummy pain. Burping relieves this pain.

In addition, babies have very tiny stomachs. Thus, even a small air bubble or gas takes up room in a young baby’s stomach. As such, burping your baby frees up room in the stomach it also means your baby may not need to be fed as often.

Where does the gas come from?

There are three main ways a baby ends up with gas in his or her digestive system.

1. Swallowing air

Babies often swallow air when feeding. The faster they feed, the more likely they will be to swallow air. Some baby bottles also increase the chance that babies will swallow air as can using a teat that is too fast. A fussy baby may also swallow more air than normal so burping is good in this case. Irony may be that the fussiness is a result of not burping, thus it helps anyway you look at it.

2. Digestion

Some foods are more likely to lead to the formation of gas than others. Common culprits include brassicas (such as cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts), beans and so-called sugar-free treats.

Young babies cannot, of course, eat food. But components of the food a mother eats do pass into her breast milk so babies that are breastfed (or bottle fed using expressed breast milk) can end up with a lot of gas in their digestive systems if mum eats food that leads to gas formation.

3. Food intolerance

Even young babies can develop food intolerances. As such, babies fed on breast milk may be gassier if they develop an intolerance to a food that their mother eats. Similarly, formula-fed babies may be gassier if they develop an intolerance to one or more of the ingredients in their formula.

When should you burp a baby?

Now that you know why babies need to be burped, you’re probably wondering when you should burp your baby. The answer will vary for every baby but as a general guide you could begin by burping your baby:

    If your baby has problems with a lot of gas, you might need to burp Bub more frequently. If your baby rarely has problems with gas, you may be able to burp Bub less frequently.

    How long do you need to burp a baby for?

    Full-term babies are likely to be able to burp on their own by around two months of age (premature babies may take a bit longer to achieve this) so you may not have to burp your baby as much or at all after this time. If your baby does still need help after this point, he or she will likely not require assistance beyond the first 4-6 months as by that point, most babies develop strong enough neck and stomach muscles that they don’t swallow much air when feeding.

    How to burp a baby

    Now you know the why and when of baby burping, you will better appreciate how to burp a baby. The best way to achieve this is by applying gentle pressure to the stomach to expel the gas and then encouraging the sphincter to open by patting Bub’s back or rubbing his or her back in a circular motion. The various burping techniques largely differ in the positioning of Bub during burping. Don’t be alarmed if your baby spits up a mouthful or two of milk or formula when he or she burps - this is very common and nothing to worry about.

    Burping positions

    Perhaps the most commonly used burping position is the over-the-shoulder method. To burp a baby this way, position Bub over your shoulder, so that their upper tummy is pressing gently against your collarbone and then pat or rub circles on their back.

    Another commonly used burping method is to sit Bub on your lap so that he or she is leaning slightly forward with their weight supported by your hand under their rib cage. You then use your other hand to pat or rub Bub's back. If you need to support Bub’s head, you can position your first hand so that the heel of your hand is under the rib cage and your fingers are propping up the head by supporting the chin. Bub needs to be positioned carefully so that any regurgitated milk or formula ends up on a cloth rather than you, the ground or Bub’s clothes.

    If neither of those methods work, you can apply greater pressure on Bub’s stomach by lying Bub face down over one arm or your knee. As with the first position this can be quite disruptive. It can be particularly useful to use one of these positions if you’re feeding Bub before tummy time otherwise lying Bub on his or her tummy may dislodge additional gas and cause Bub to regurgitate milk or formula onto their tummy time mat.

    If movement seems to help your baby burp, you can try bringing Bub’s knees up to their chest while rubbing or patting their back. Alternatively, you could lay Bub on his or her back and rotate their legs like they’re riding a bike. This can also be a good way to encourage good gross motor skill development.

    If you’re desperately trying to get Bub to sleep but need to burp him or her, the best way to attempt the feat is to give Bub a massage. This may help the gas move while also relaxing Bub.

    If Bub’s gas is particularly stubborn, you might have success burping Bub just by wearing him or her in a carrier or sling. You can walk around, do chores or run errands and the rhythmic bouncing of your steps may help to dislodge the gas.

    Expert tips for combatting gas

    If your baby is particularly gassy or you have a tough time burping him or her, there are a few things you can do to prevent gas from forming in the first place.

    Burp your baby at the first sign of gas - As fussy babies are more likely to swallow greater amounts of air during a feed, one of the best ways to prevent gas from getting out of control is to burp your baby as soon as he or she shows signs of gas - even if that means burping your baby every 5 mins. Similarly, if your baby falls asleep feeding, don’t be afraid to burp him or her. Some babies will just wake up soon after settling if they’re not burped immediately after each feed.

    Monitor Mom’s diet - Because the foods a mother eats can affect how much gas a baby fed on breast milk produces, changing the foods Mom eats may help to reduce the amount of gas in Bub’s digestive system. As such, if Bub’s diet is at least partially comprised of breast milk, a food diary can help you determine whether there is a link between any particular foods in Mom’s diet that result in lots of gas in Bub. If you identify a pattern, offending foods can be eliminated from Mom’s diet for a short period of time so you can see whether Bub’s comfort improves. A food diary can be useful for detecting issues with foods that commonly cause a build-up of gas as well as for foods of which a baby is intolerant. However, if you suspect either of these things are an issue for your baby dietary adjustments should only be undertaken under the supervision of a doctor and/or dietician otherwise Mom’s diet may be insufficient to support her health.

    Adjust the way formula is prepared - The way you prepare your baby’s formula can affect the amount of air he or she swallows. Do you shake each bottle to mix the powdered formula with the water? Most people prepare formula this way but doing so produces tiny air bubbles in the solution which Bub then swallows during a feed. To reduce the amount of air that gets trapped when you prepare formula you can either let the bottle rest after shaking it or mix the powder into the water by swirling the bottle instead of shaking it.

    Try a different formula - For babies that are at least partially fed on formula, trialling a different formula may reduce gas if Bub has developed an intolerance to any of the ingredients in the current formula. Your baby’s doctor should be able to help you select alternative formulas that are suitable for your baby’s unique circumstances.

    Choose the right bottles and nipples - Some bottle feeding systems, such as Minbie’s award-winning bottles and nipples, are specifically designed to prevent Bub from swallowing air bubbles during a feed so they can be a great solution for bottle-fed babies. Choosing the right nipple size is also important as using a nipple that is too big for your baby can result in Bub swallowing too quickly, which in turn causes Bub to swallow air.

    Consult your doctor about possible medication options - There are a few over-the-counter remedies that may help gassy babies, though the evidence to support them is a little shaky. Always consult a doctor before trying any medication for your baby even if it is available without a prescription or is a herbal remedy.

    Have your say

    Did this help you burb your baby? Or do you have a baby burping technique or tip that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.