Parents and caregivers know how distressing it can be when a baby experiences discomfort from gas. When a baby has trouble sleeping due to gassiness, it may be tempting to place them on their side or stomach to see if that helps their digestion. However, to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the best sleeping position for a gassy baby—and every baby—is on their back.
Fortunately, there are several methods that work well for reducing gassiness and helping an infant feel better. We discuss why babies get gassy, the best sleeping position for a gassy baby, and how to reduce gassiness.
Does Sleep Position Affect a Baby’s Gassiness?
Lying down encourages air to pass deeper into the digestive system, which may worsen gassiness in babies . However, whether or not they are gassy, a baby should always be placed on their back to sleep. Some parents may worry a baby could choke on spit-up in this position, but they are even less likely to choke while lying on their back.
For young infants, side or stomach sleeping increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and other sleep-related deaths. Experts recommend placing babies on their backs to sleep until they are 1 year old.
While doctors previously recommended raising the head of a baby’s crib to ease the digestion process , new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics advise parents and caregivers to always use a flat sleep surface.
Helping a Gassy Baby to Sleep
If a baby has a tendency to be gassy after feeding, it may help to hold them upright for about half an hour before putting them down to sleep. The upright position helps eliminate gas and reduces spitting up, another common occurrence when babies feed. In this half-hour after feedings, keeping the baby calm and burping them may also aid with digestion.
Babies should never sleep on their stomachs or sides, even if they are gassy. Stomach sleeping increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, which is why health experts recommend always putting babies on their back to sleep. While the baby is awake, it is all right to let them lie on their stomach and rub their back, if this helps them feel better.
What Does It Mean if a Baby Is Gassy?
Gassiness in babies refers to a painful sensation due to trapped gas in the digestive system that often builds up after they eat. The gas may cause cramps and bloating.
Signs a Baby Is Gassy
Because babies are unable to talk, parents and caregivers must rely on certain signs to interpret when a child is gassy. A baby may have abdominal pain or gas when they are:
- Reluctant to feed
- Pulling their legs in toward their abdomen
- Experiencing a swollen stomach
- Arching their back
- Clenching their fists
What Causes Gas in Babies?
Infants often swallow air while feeding, which can cause gas to build up in the digestive tract. It is common for babies to become gassy if they eat too much or do not burp frequently enough while feeding.
As infants learn to eat without swallowing air, their digestion process becomes smoother. Most parents and caregivers should see a noticeable improvement around the 3- to 4-month mark.
Some factors may contribute to extra gas in babies:
- Swallowing air while crying: Babies may also gulp down air while crying, which can further contribute to gas and cause a swollen abdomen and flatulence .
- Underdeveloped digestive system: Some studies suggest a baby’s digestive system may have trouble absorbing carbohydrates , possibly leading to excess gas. More research is needed to confirm this.
- Lactose intolerance: Babies with lactose intolerance have a shortage of the enzyme needed to digest the lactose in cow’s milk , which can cause gas and diarrhea. Lactose intolerance is more common in premature babies, who may show symptoms as soon as half an hour after feeding.
- Other food sensitivities and allergies: Babies may be sensitive to certain foods in the diet of the person breastfeeding them, such as caffeine, nuts, chocolate, or dairy products. Working with a health care provider to eliminate problem foods from the adult’s diet may help. Infants with a sensitivity to milk proteins may need a formula free of soy and cow’s milk.
- Personal differences: One theory proposes that some babies may be more likely to have lower levels of good bacteria and higher levels of gas-producing bacteria in their digestive systems.
Gas and Colic
Some believe gas may be one trigger for colic. Colic refers to a baby crying for seemingly no reason, over and above what is considered typical for newborn babies. Parents and caregivers sometimes observe that babies with colic become calmer after passing gas.
However, many researchers believe the connection between colic and gas works the other way around. Because babies gulp down air while crying, a baby that is already crying from colic may be more likely to become gassy. So far, studies have not found conclusive evidence that intestinal gas makes babies develop colic.
How to Relieve a Baby’s Gas
When a baby is fussy from gas, there are several ways to help relieve their discomfort. Some babies may respond better to certain techniques, so try experimenting to find what works best.
Burp the Baby
To burp a baby, pat them gently on the back. The best position is with the baby upright and leaning a little forward, with their head supported by an adult’s hand. This position puts gentle pressure on the stomach, but not so much pressure that they are likely to spit up. That said, it is a good idea to use a bib or towel in case they do spit up.
Use Soothing Movement
Gently rocking an infant or putting them in an infant swing, once they are at least three weeks old and can hold their head up, may help them pass gas. The motion also soothes them and may help them stop crying, reducing the amount of air they swallow.
Talk to a Pediatrician About Gas Medication
Sometimes, doctors recommend medication for treating gassy babies. The medication is designed to encourage gas bubbles to come together so they pass more easily.
While most doctors consider it safe for babies to take this gas-reducing medication, it may not be appropriate for babies with certain conditions. It is important to always consult with a pediatrician before giving any medication to an infant.
How to Prevent Babies from Getting Gas
Adopting certain habits when feeding a baby can reduce gassiness and prevent discomfort. For babies who often cry after feeding, experimenting with different ways to feed them may help them swallow less air.
Avoid Overfeeding the Baby
To minimize the chances of a baby having an upset stomach, it is important to feed them the right amount and keep an eye out to make sure they are not swallowing too much air.
Try to stay within recommended limits for breast milk or formula. Experts recommend breastfeeding babies on demand , whenever they indicate they are hungry. However, if babies appear to be eating too much, breastfeeders can offer just one breast at a time. Stop feeding the baby when they no longer appear hungry.
For babies who tend to finish bottle feeding in under 20 minutes, try replacing the nipple with a smaller one, to encourage them to take their time. Babies may also respond well to drinking frequent small doses of formula more often, instead of drinking large amounts all at once.
Feed in an Upright Position
Keeping the baby upright for feeding and feeding them less at a time may help facilitate digestion and reduce the amount of air they swallow. To facilitate digestion, keep the baby in an upright position for at least half an hour after feeding. It is better to hold the baby upright, rather than putting them in an infant seat.
If a baby cries soon after feeding, there is a good chance they are experiencing discomfort from digestion.
Burp Regularly While Feeding
Infants should be burped often to help eliminate the air they swallow while feeding. Most breastfeeding babies should be burped when switching breasts, and babies on formula should be burped after they drink one to two ounces. It is also important to burp a baby at the end of each feeding session.
Babies who breastfeed generally experience less gas . If a breastfeeding baby is often uncomfortable from gas, caregivers or parents can talk to their pediatrician or a lactation specialist about the best way to ease the digestion process for their baby.
Try a Different Bottle
Instead of a regular bottle, some babies may have more success with a curved bottle or a bottle that comes with a collapsible bag. There are also vented bottles with a system meant to discourage air bubbles from forming, but so far there is no scientific evidence that these bottles work to prevent gas.
Avoid Gassy Foods
While breastfeeding, some people prefer to avoid foods with a reputation for causing gas, such as beans, broccoli, and cabbage. Research has not found these foods to make much difference to gassy babies, but it might be worth a try.
Ask a pediatrician if it might help to switch to a formula without milk protein or lactose.
When to See a Doctor
Although it is normal for babies to be gassy, parents and caregivers should consult their pediatrician if their baby appears to have a lot of gas or frequently feel uncomfortable, or if food comes flying out of their mouth when they spit up.
Infants who cry more than usual for no apparent reason should also be examined by a pediatrician, especially if they are not eating well, not gaining enough weight, or not sleeping well.