Baby Burping Basics: Getting the Gas Out of Baby

By Alexandria Powell

It’s been a few years since Karen Ray’s children needed burping, but she remembers those days well. “I got the best burping results by setting the baby on my knee, with the infant leaning into my left arm and my thumb and forefinger holding along the jaw line to help brace the neck,” says the mom from Oklahoma. “I patted Baby’s back with my right hand. It always seemed to me that the sitting position helped push the burp out quicker.”

It’s a skill most parents come to pride themselves on – but also one of the oddest things most of us could have imagined doing before becoming parents: helping another human move the gas out of his or her body. Why do babies need burping, anyway?

Because babies aren’t mobile, the air that they swallow during feedings can stay trapped inside. If this air isn’t burped up, it will work its way out through the GI tract, says Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore, Md., and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland. As the air moves through the bowel, it dilates it, leading to the discomfort commonly known as gas pains. Almost all babies need to be burped, as almost all swallow some air, Dr. Shubin says.

So when will your baby outgrow burping? “We have the same issues as adults, [so] the real answer is never!” Dr. Shubin says. But don’t worry – as your baby becomes more active and able to move around on his own, he’ll be able to better move gas out of his body. And since sucking on a nipple makes it easy to swallow air, you’ll see a decrease in gassiness as your baby weans off the bottle or breast, Dr. Shubin says. Most babies will need burping for at least the first six months.

The Ins and Outs of Baby Gas

That said, not all babies will need to be burped all the time. In fact, some babies never need burping.

Sherri Lynn of Orange County, Calif., never burped her daughter. “She just burped by herself,” she says. “I never thought I needed to burp my daughter, and I don’t remember her having to burp a lot. It just seemed natural not to burp.”

You’ll get to know your baby soon enough, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Gentle Baby Care: No-cry, No-fuss, No-worry Essential Tips for Raising Your Baby (McGraw-Hill, 2003), and you may find, like Lynn, that your child needs little or no burping. Many breastfed babies don’t swallow enough air to need burping, or they might need it only for a large feeding, not for a middle-of-the night snack.

However, keep in mind that each baby is different, says Dr. Cathryn Tobin, a pediatrician and author of The Lull-A-Baby Sleep Plan: The Soothing, Superfast Way to Help Your New Baby Sleep Through the Night … and Prevent Sleep Problems Before They Develop (Rodale, 2006). “Some breastfed babies swallow a great deal of air at the start of a feed when the mom’s milk is letting down,” she says. This is particularly true of babies who tend to gulp their feeds, and babies who aren’t latched on well.

And some bottle-fed babies learn to get a good seal on the bottle’s nipple and swallow less air, so they may need less burping, Dr. Shubin says.

The general guidelines are between breasts and at the end of a feeding, if breastfeeding, and every 1 to 3 ounces – or about half the bottle – and at the end of a feeding if bottle feeding, Pantley says. Follow your little one’s cues. A baby who is gulping her feedings, spitting up a lot or showing signs of discomfort may need more burping.

Finally, keep in mind that not every rough day and long night is caused by gas, Dr. Tobin says. Babies will fuss, turn red in the face, pull up their legs and squirm when they’re bored, unhappy, sleepy, frustrated and/or overdressed – just to name a few!

Getting Down to the Spitty Gritty

“Never burp your baby near your [expensive] purse,” says Jenny Smith of Spanish Fork, Utah. No matter where your purse comes from, or any other items you value, spit-up protection is essential when burping babies!

Keep a burp cloth, cloth diaper, towel or bib under baby’s chin and over your clothing when burping – and watch where you aim that kid. It’s very normal for babies to regurgitate a little milk along with the air when they burp, especially in the first three to four months of life, Pantley says.

Burping technique matters as well, although what works best varies from baby to baby. If baby won’t burp after three or four minutes of trying, then stop.

Here are some of the more common burping positions:

  • Over the shoulder. Hold your baby so that his head is nestled against your shoulder. Support his bottom with your forearm and pat or rub his back gently.
  • Across the lap. Place your baby facedown across your lap and raise one of your legs very slightly, so that his head is higher than his stomach. Then gently pat or rub his back.
  • Sitting up. Sit your baby up in your lap and carefully support his chin and upper body with one hand. Gently pat or rub his back.

Jill Mills of Sacramento, Calif., found that her daughter tended to burp better if she were placed across her lap, rather than over the shoulder. Mills says that there’s no need for parents to feel overly stressed about burping. “My daughter wasn’t much of a burper as a baby, but she made up for it in her preteen years,” she says.