New parents are often surprised at the big noises that come out of a small baby. Newborns can be quite the audible orchestra, and gas is often part of the repertoire. “Gas is a normal part of the digestive process, but it’s also involved in most intestinal complaints,” says Jeremiah Levine, M.D., director of pediatric gastroenterology at NYU Langone Health. “Too much gas is usually a symptom that something else is going on.” Here's how to spot a baby with gas and help her pass it.
You’ve no doubt figured out by now that every person on the planet produces and expels gas. As food moves through the GI tract, the small intestine absorbs the usable ingredients, and bacteria in the large intestine break down the leftovers, releasing hydrogen and carbon dioxide and producing bubbles of gas in the process. Burping allows some gas to escape from the stomach early on, and the rest travels from the colon to the rectum, where it’s ejected primarily via bowel movements or farts, poofs, or whatever you call them in your house.
But when gas doesn’t pass easily, it collects in the digestive tract and causes bloating and discomfort. Babies are especially prone to this. “Newborn digestive systems are immature, so they produce a lot of gas, and this is normal. Infants also take in a lot of air while feeding and crying, which produces more gas,” says Samira Armin, M.D., a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Pediatrics in Houston. Bottle-fed babies have it the worst, but breastfeeding doesn’t make a baby immune. Ultimately, a newborn baby may pass more gas than a grown man.
Frequency of gas is generally not a cause for concern, and a fussy baby might be perfectly normal, too. Unlike adults, babies pass gas with a little less decorum and a lot more enthusiasm. "She may seem uncomfortable or just downright fussy when she's got some gas that needs to come out," says Ari Brown, M.D., an Austin-based pediatrician and the author of Baby 411. "But it's rare that a baby will actually have discomfort due to gas."
If you suspect that your fussy baby is genuinely uncomfortable, and she keeps squirming and pulling up her legs, she might have some gas that refuses to pass. The best way to confirm your suspicions is to try some gas-relieving techniques. "If your baby seems much better after passing gas, then that's a telltale sign that the problem was gas," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., an Atlanta-based pediatrician and coauthor of Food Fights: Winning The Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and A Bottle of Ketchup.
For some children, even normal amounts of gas can cause abnormal discomfort. That is because they have an increased sensitivity to distension (the stretching of the intestines), says John Rosen, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children’s Mercy, in Kansas City, Missouri. Kids (and adults) experience sensations from intestinal pain fibers in different ways and have individual pain thresholds.
If you have a gassy baby on your hands, there are several things you can do to help coax the gas out. Start by placing your baby on a flat surface, belly down. Lifting her up slightly on her stomach, gently massage her belly. Or place her on her back and "try moving her legs and hips around as if she [were] riding a bike," Dr. Brown says. Often these kinds of motions break up bubbles and give gas that little extra push it needs to work its way out. "You can also try a nice, warm bath to relieve the discomfort," Dr. Brown adds.
If you're still faced with an unhappy infant, you might want to consult with your pediatrician about trying some gas drops. "Some babies are said to respond well to over-the-counter anti-gas drops containing simethicone," Dr. Shu says. Products with this ingredient include Gerber Gas Relief Drops, Mylicon, and Phazyme. Another option is to consider what might be causing the excess gas and see if you can reduce the bubble intake from the get-go.
Bring on the Burps. Feeding time can come with a lot of crying, gulping, guzzling, and suckling – in other words, a lot of air, which eventually manifests itself in the form of a burp or gas. "And while relief from a burp might be more immediate, air that exits as gas has a longer journey through the intestinal tract first," Dr. Shu says. Try being a little extra vigilant about burping your baby during and after a feeding to see if you can keep some of the gas at bay.
Settle Down. Bottle-fed babies can ingest a lot of bubbles. To combat this, tilt the bottle at an angle that fills the entire nipple with milk. "Otherwise your baby will suck in air," Dr. Shu says. "More swallowed air means potentially more gas." If you feed your baby a powdered formula, try to let the bottle settle first before giving it to your baby. There's a whole lot of shaking going on and the bottle is often piled high with bubbles on top of the actual formula. Ready-made formula and specially vented bottles may also help reduce the amount of bubbles in the bottle.
Adjust the Angle. "When you're feeding your baby, make sure her head is higher than her stomach," Dr. Shu advises. You want to hold your baby in a position that allows the liquid to slowly sink to the bottom while the bubbles rise to the top. If you keep the bubbles closer to the surface, the natural – and easiest – means of exit is a burp. Bubbles that are trapped will likely pass in the form of gas.
Examine the Menu. Certain kinds of foods – those that are harder to digest– are known to cause excess gas, and the introduction of solid foods can be a definite game changer in the world of infant gas. So if you're contending with a particularly fussy or constantly gassy baby, it might be worth taking a look at her diet – and yours. The gas-causing food you eat (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beans) turns up in your breast milk, which might mean extra gas for your baby.
The stink of hot wind can be so strong you have to hold your breath, or it can be almost imperceptible. Scientifically speaking, the odor depends on the concentration of the gas, the foods your child ate recently (warning: scrambled eggs lead to sulfur farts), and the concentration and types of bacteria in your child’s colon. You need to worry about a particularly putrid scent only if it consistently bothers your child, elicits teasing from others, or is associated with fever, incontinence, diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, poor growth, blood in the stool, or other sudden symptoms. In these cases, consult your doctor.
It’s easy to point a finger when you see the symptoms of colic—inconsolable crying, a hard-as-a-rock tummy, a red face, an arched back, clenched fists, pulled-up legs—but gas is just one part of the overall constellation of colic, not the underlying cause. Colic probably has origins in the nervous system, says Barry Lester, Ph.D., founder and director of the Women & Infants Hospital’s Center for Children and Families, in Providence, home to the only colic clinic in the U.S. When children undergo significant reorganizations of their nervous system, their behavior often changes too. The first big change like this occurs between 3 and 4 weeks of age, when they’re gaining more control of their vocal cords, he explains.
Gas pain goes hand in hand with constipation, the most common issue that pediatric gastroenterologists see in their offices. But the connection isn’t always easy for parents to notice at home. Hard, painful-to-pass stool that’s produced only once a week is an obvious symptom, but many kids have a daily bowel movement and still don’t get it all out, says Dr. Rosen. Carrying around all that extra stool is uncomfortable, to say the least.
“Often kids want to get out just enough poop to make them feel better, and then they immediately get up from the toilet so they can return to playing,” says Dr. Rosen. “If you notice this happening, encourage your child to sit for an additional two or three minutes to see if more stool and gas come out.”You can tell your child that his poop is a train car, and even though the engine came out of the tunnel (success!), there may be some more cars trailing close behind that should be let out as well.
When fussiness, squirming, and other gassy behaviors persist beyond your baby’s first few months, it’s reasonable to wonder if she has a food allergy or intolerance. The big clue that she does: She’s dealing with other significant health problems too. “A baby or child with a food allergy will also probably have skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhea or blood in her stool, and she may not be gaining enough weight,” says Jean Molleston, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist with Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, in Indianapolis.
Gas pain is also a symptom of celiac disease, a serious intolerance to gluten. Children aren’t born with this autoimmune disorder; it can develop at any point when something in their environment “turns on” the genes that cause it. Ask your doctor to test your child for celiac disease if she’s also experiencing growth issues, abdominal discomfort, vomiting, chronic diarrhea, or constipation, or if celiac or any other autoimmune diseases run in your family.