Helping a Gassy Baby

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When we feel that we just have to grumble about something, a popular topic is always the price of gasoline. Although as I write this, gas prices have come down a bit, it’s something that we’re usually not happy paying for, and many of us take steps to minimize the use of “petrol” to save a little money.

Yet, there is another type of “gas” that is responsible for a little expenditure. I’m talking, of course, of the efforts we make to minimize infant gassiness. Although there don’t appear to be available figures on how much parents spend on treating the problem, when you consider what’s out there—brand after brand after brand of formula, plus bottles, nipples, dietary changes for breastfeeding Moms, gas drops, plus multiple other remedies recommended by aunts, uncles, and sometimes providers—you can appreciate the money that gets pumped into looking for potential solutions.

Since we are, after all, always interested in conserving resources, it pays to look a little more into some of the things that lead to a gassy baby. We can then discuss a few (possibly surprising) ways of dealing with the situation.

What’s Causing All That Gas?

If you’re on the home page of your Internet search engine, you usually don’t have to go far to find an item urging you to “eat this” or “don’t drink that.” The purveyors of such advice know that it’s human nature to look to diet to solve or avoid a multitude of problems. (I found 2 such items just now when I looked!) While a lot of this advice might be sound or at least reasonable, there’s certainly some out there that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. And when it comes to treating gassy babies, it’s tough to sort it all out.

Much of the anti-gas advice had indeed centered on diet. Breastfeeding Moms are often told to avoid certain foods, such as cabbage, broccoli, onions, caffeine, milk products, and, yes, beans. Parents who bottle feed are often urged to change to a formula that’s designed to minimize the problem.

Although dietary changes for Mom and baby have not been clinically shown to be helpful, most are generally not harmful. And if the change seems to help, most providers would OK sticking with it. However, it turns out that quite a bit of that infant gas comes out the way it came in—as swallowed air.

Swallowed air can happen a couple of different ways. Some bottles and nipples may let more air go down than others. Also, if formula is shaken, as it often needs to be if it’s made at home from powder, air bubbles can get in that way. (Yet another argument for breastfeeding: babies tend to ingest less air.) But a lot of swallowed air has nothing to do with feeding; rather, it’s taken in when a baby cries. In other words, that crying is causing the gas; it’s not the gas causing the crying!

Degassing Your Baby

First off, if your little one is giving off a windy product, do you really need to treat it? If he seems like he’s sleeping comfortably and happy when awake, you may not need to. Otherwise, here are some measures to relieve what’s there:

  • Try burping the baby more frequently. If you need some advice on the best methods of burping, talk to your provider or lactation consultant.
  • Sometimes gently “bicycling” the baby’s legs will expel a little gas.
  • Using a cotton swab to gently move the anal opening (don’t insert it!) will sometimes allow a little gas to leave.
  • Once the baby has some head control, sometimes giving some “tummy time” (putting her on her stomach) when awake can prevent gas from collecting.

If you’ve had a gassy-appearing baby and are looking to avoid future episodes, here are some things to think about:

  • If you are thinking about changing your or your baby’s diet, run it by your provider. And by all means, weigh the likelihood that it will help against the costs—financial and otherwise—of the changes. Do you really want to give up that ice cream? Do you really want 5 different kinds of formula in your kitchen cabinet?
  • Like diet changes, simethicone gas drops have not been clinically shown to be helpful. They do not appear to cause any harm, however. Again, run them by your baby’s provider and consider the cost.
  • A solution that’s more likely to be helpful is a change of bottle or nipple. You just need to keep experimenting until you hit on one that seems to help.
  • Realize that if you can soothe the baby and minimize the crying, that might take care of the gas problem. Again, what works will be different for every baby. Frequent holding and gentle rocking (never shaking!) is always a good bet. Perhaps some music or even a recording of a heartbeat will be helpful. (In the pre-cyber days, people would often use a radio turned to “white noise” between the stations.)

Fortunately, babies tend to grow out of the tendency to exhibit gassy behavior. Some parents find that the baby is “cured” by about 2 to 3 months of age. It’s OK to conclude that the change you made at that time did the trick. However, what may really happening is that your little one has reached the age where everything has settled down, and the gas isn’t a problem anymore!

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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