It’s a traditional part of feeding a new baby: Baby lets go of the nipple, mom or dad sits the baby up and pats his back or massages his tummy until he burps. If you're still figuring out how to burp a baby, you might ask yourself: Is this traditional way actually necessary?
“The theory is that babies swallow air during feedings and the air in their tummies makes them uncomfortable and gassy—hence the ritual of burping,” explains lactation consultant and nurse Jan Barger.
She points out, though, that in cultures where babies are carried upright in wraps or slings or an adult’s arms most of the time, burping a baby is unheard of. Barger adds that it can be upsetting to the baby who has just drifted off to sleep at the breast to be abruptly sat up and patted for several minutes until he finally lets out a burp. “It also makes the whole feeding process take much longer than necessary,” she says. Instead, Barger suggests parents keep the baby in a vertical position against a shoulder or in a carrier and if there is a burp to come up, it will just happen naturally.
On the other hand, there are situations where burping might not be such a bad idea.
• If the baby had been crying for a while before you started to feed him, he might have swallowed air while crying and need help in bringing it up. You may find it helpful to burp the baby before feeding him.
• If you are feeding your baby with a bottle, she’s less likely to be able to make a good seal around the nipple, so she’ll swallow more air while feeding. In addition, “because most bottles have a very fast flow, the baby usually ends up gulping the liquid down and gulps air along with it,” says Barger.
• That very fast flow is a problem for some breastfeeding mothers as well. According to Barger: “If the mother has an overactive letdown or an overabundant milk supply and her baby gulps milk very quickly, that baby may be swallowing a lot of air and need help with burping.” (A lactation consultant or La Leche League leader can help with tips on how to reduce the too-fast flow of milk.)
If one of these situations applies to you, or your baby seems uncomfortable after feeding and you suspect a burp might help, what’s the best approach? Each baby is different, but the key is to have the baby vertical and put a little pressure on his tummy.
• Try putting the baby high up on your shoulder so that your shoulder presses just below his tiny ribcage, then gently pat his back. (Oh yeah, arrange a receiving blanket or burp pad on your shoulder first. Trust me on this!)
• Are you feeding lying down? No need to get up! While lying on your side, drape the baby over your hip, facing toward your back (which puts a little pressure on his tummy) and pat his back gently.
• With a small baby, the “folding” technique sometimes works. Hold baby in a sitting position, then gently bend her forward, chest toward knees (“folding” the baby in half) and then straighten her up again. Repeat a couple more times. (Laying the baby on her back and bending her knees to her chest can sometimes help with gas at “the other end,” but it’s less effective in bringing up burps; since air tends to rise, a vertical position is more helpful and leads to less spitting up.)
If you don’t hear a satisfying belch after a minute or two, chances are there’s no burp to come up. However, if your baby starts to grimace or wiggle around as though he’s uncomfortable when you lay him down, it’s worth giving it another try. It’s just about the only time in his life when a loud buuurp will get the response: “Oh, good boy! That was a good one!”