What Causes Gas in Breastfed Babies?

Gas Breastfeeding


No one likes to see an uncomfortable baby.  An infant that is writhing, fussy, gurgling in the bowel area and passing gas may indeed have a problem with excessive gas.

Parents naturally want to relieve discomfort and, in many cases, that means relieving the gassiness.  But, they might wonder:  how can I make her feel better?  Am I doing anything that might be making her condition worse? 

A lot of families look to feeding practices —breast or bottle— as a possible source of discomfort.  But many mothers would like to continue to breastfeed due to the positive effects on the baby’s health.  For example, infants who breastfeed receive an excellent balance of nutrients as well as protective, infection-fighting antibodies.

Moms benefit too: studies have shown a positive effect on maternal weight as well as protection against breast cancer.

Knowing the upsides of breastfeeding, is there a downside where baby gassiness is concerned?  And if a mother wants to continue to nurse, is there anything that can be done about the gas?

Although there has been gas as long as there have been babies, there seem to be few controlled studies on the subject, and treating the problem in little ones has largely been a trial-and-error process.  In trying to help matters, many Moms who want to continue nurse will try experimenting with their diet.  Over time, many different foods have been thought to be the culprits, and it turns out that many adults have problems with the same foods.  Dairy, tomatoes,  broccoli, cabbage and caffeinated beverages are frequently implicated.

Although avoiding any one particular food won’t solve the problem in all babies, Moms can try cutting out a food for a couple of days.  If a few days’ absence of a potential offender doesn’t seem to alleviate symptoms, and it’s something you’d like to keep eating, by all means, put it back in your diet.  (It’s best to try one food at a time in order to pinpoint what the problem might be.  Also, if you are on any kind of special diet, make sure any changes are approved by your healthcare provider.)

Most of the other solutions to the gas problem really don’t differ that much between breastfed and bottle-fed babies.  The reason?  A large percentage of young infants are bothered by swallowed air.  The air issue is another place where good news about breastfeeding comes in.  It’s been shown that nursing is usually very efficient; relatively speaking, breastfed babies tend to swallow a minimal amount of air.  For parents who are giving some formula, or are giving pumped breast milk by bottle, sometimes changing the type of bottle or nipple will help—usually more so than changing what’s in the bottle!

Certainly, part of the solution to swallowed air is burping the baby frequently.  Breastfeeding Moms can burp their babies when they switch sides—even more often if it seems to help.

Infant feeding, however, is only part of the gas story.  A large percentage of your baby’s gassiness may be swallowed air from crying; in other words, it’s the crying causing the gas rather than the other way around.

Fussy periods, of course, are a fact of life for most young infants; on average they cry 2 ½ hours per day.  But many cry considerably more than this.  If the baby seems otherwise well and is feeding vigorously (and a trip to his healthcare provider is in order if he is not), he may be suffering from colic.

No one knows what causes colic; likely the cause is different for every baby.  In many cases it appears that some newborns’ nervous systems are “wired” differently, giving them more of a tendency to fussy periods.  It’s often through trying different methods of soothing their baby that parents will find a successful way to lessen her crying spells.

But, even here there is good news:  once babies are a few months old, regardless of treatment or feeding practices, the fussy/gassy periods are generally much less of a problem!

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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