Many new parents find themselves burping their baby after every single feed, even if it means waking them up and struggling to get them settled again.
But do we really need to burp babies before sleep?
Or do we need to burp them at all?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at what we know about burping based on the research available. Starting with the reasons for burping babies in the first place.
Why Do We Burp Our Babies?
Burping can take a lot of time and effort both during and after a feed.
Often it’s done simply because that’s what their parents did, or they’ve been taught that it’s a mandatory part of the feeding process.
The idea behind burping a baby is that when babies are bottle feeding or breastfeeding, they are inhaling air, and this air becomes trapped in the stomach.
This is combined with the belief that babies don’t know how to burp, and because of that, we need to help release trapped gas from the stomach after feeding.
However, burping breastfeeding babies actually seems to be largely a Western cultural tradition. Many cultures don’t burp their babies at all when breastfeeding. Although, there seems to be a potential for more air bubbles to enter the stomach with bottle feeding, which may create an increased need for burping bottle-fed babies.
But one major downside to burping after every feed is that it can create an additional challenge with sleep. Many newborn babies fall asleep while feeding during the night. When you burp a sleeping baby, it usually causes them to wake back up. Babies tend to be more difficult to get back to sleep when this happens.
It’s much easier to put your sleeping baby back in their cot after a feed without them waking if you don’t have to burp them. So let’s look at this question more deeply and find out – is it ok to put baby to sleep without burping?
What happens if you don’t burp a baby?
Does Not Burping a Baby Hurt Them?
One common belief is that unless you help your baby release the air bubbles from their stomach after feeding, the trapped gas will cause pain, and your baby will become more fussy and irritable.
However, babies have an extremely floppy sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach. Because this sphincter is so weak, it generally opens and closes regularly. This opening and closing allows air to escape frequently throughout the day and night.
This also means babies burp naturally when you change their position. When your baby burps like this, it doesn’t have to be a loud burp, but air will escape.
Even gentle movements – like when you move from having your baby lying down to sitting upright, will cause your baby to burp. So those gas bubbles are escaping all the time.
Will Putting a Baby To Sleep Without Burping Cause Them to Spit Up?
Another theory is that if we don’t help babies release swallowed air from the stomach, they’re more likely to spit up after feeding.
First, it’s important to realise that spitting up is normal for babies. Most babies will spit up and regurgitate their milk or formula quite often.
That’s because of that floppy sphincter between the esophagus and stomach that I mentioned earlier. However, when they do spit up, babies don’t usually experience any discomfort or pain.
In fact, burping may even cause babies to spit up more than if they are not burped.
One study followed a group of mothers and their babies for 3 months to attempt to measure the difference made by burping vs. not burping. They were split into 2 groups, with one group told to burp their babies religiously, and the other group were told not to burp their baby at all.
The results were very interesting! It found that the babies who were not burped were less likely to spit up. The babies that did get burped were found to be twice as likely to spit up their milk.
So instead of reducing the incidents of a baby spitting up, burping actually increased the likelihood of that happening.
While this study wasn’t perfect, it is some of the best data we have when it comes to measuring the effects of burping a baby. One thing I think we can take away from it is that it shows that for at least some babies, burping won’t reduce how often they spit up. It may even reduce it.
Will Burping Help a Colicky Baby?
Parents are also encouraged to burp a baby because there is a belief that it will reduce the intensity of crying that the baby experiences or their overall fussiness.
The study that I mentioned earlier also measured this.
They found that the intensity of crying and levels of fussiness was no greater in babies who were burped compared to those who weren’t.
These results indicate that for most, helping your baby burp before falling asleep won’t help with fussiness or colic.
What I will say once again, though, is that this doesn’t mean it won’t help your baby. While it indicates that for many babies, there will be no improvement in crying or fussiness, you might find it does help your little one. It’s worth trying both approaches to see what you find works best.
Can a Baby Burp While Sleeping?
Yes, your baby’s tummy can naturally release gas through burping while sleeping. The natural digestive process, combined with that weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES), will allow this to happen. However, it’s not as easy for gas to escape as it is with your baby upright.
Is It Ok To Put Baby to Sleep Without Burping?
As discussed above, research seems to indicate that there are no additional risks posed by not burping before your baby falls asleep. It also indicates that deliberate burping to release excess gas doesn’t help reduce fussiness or crying for most babies.
On top of that, the research we do have available to us indicates it may, in fact increase spitting up.
Given this, I would actually argue that burping a newborn might actually be unhelpful for some babies.
That’s because many parents often feel pressure to ensure that the baby is burped after or during every single feed.
However, many babies will fall asleep while feeding. That’s because when babies are fed, their bodies automatically produce a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK), which means that they get a sense of fullness and become sleepy.
Waking a sleeping baby just to burp them can make life unnecessarily difficult for a sleep-deprived parent. Particularly if doing so provides no benefits.
Waking a sleeping baby by putting them in specific burping positions disrupts the natural sleep progress that babies will go through when feeding.
I’m not saying burping is bad, or that you shouldn’t do it if you want to.
But based on what the data we have available indicates, I do believe it’s worth not burping your baby before or during sleep for a period of time to see if it has any effect on your little one. Particularly if you find it difficult to settle your baby after waking them.
You might find that you don’t need to wake your sleeping baby after feeding, and it’s easier to simply put them back in their cot, where they stay asleep until their next wake window.
Alternatively, you might find that your baby wakes less, or your baby just sleeps better when burped. In that case, you may want to continue.
The key message here is that it is ok to put a baby to sleep without burping. For many babies, parents find they don’t notice an improvement in sleep if they purposefully relieve gas before putting their baby down to bed.
However, some babies do tend to sleep better by burping their baby before falling asleep. It’s all about finding what works best for your little one.
How Do I Burp a Sleeping Baby
If you do find that your baby sleeps better after burping to help them release trapped air from their stomach, here are some positions to try.
These are all gentle positions that I’m recommending because they help minimise the chance of your sleeping baby waking during burping, and if they do wake, provide as little stimulation as possible so they fall back to sleep quickly.
Hold Your Baby Upright
Hold your baby in an upright position with your baby’s head on your shoulder and gently walk around the room. Do this for at least 5 minutes. This may be all they need to release air trapped in their stomach after feeding.
The gentle motion of walking is unlikely to wake them if they’re sleeping, so as soon as you hear them burp, hopefully, you can put your sleeping baby back to bed without disturbing them.
Remember, always keep the room as dark and quiet as possible to avoid waking them and reduce stimulation.
Gently Pat Them On The Back
If holding your baby upright with gentle movement isn’t enough, you can try adding a soft pat on the back into the mix as well. If they have fallen asleep during a feed, this may not wake them, but it all depends on the individual.
Use a Rocking Chair to Help Burp a Sleeping Baby
If you have a rocking chair that you use for feeding, you can use it’s motion to help burp a sleeping baby.
Once your baby has fallen fast asleep, place them in a slightly upright position to provide minimal disturbance. Simpy raising their head a little is a good starting point.
Then rock back and forth on the chair to create some gentle movement. You may need to do this for 10-15 minutes, so make sure you stick with it for a little while before giving up.
Because they’re still quick comfortable in this semi upright position, the gentle motion means that even if they wake, they will likely fall asleep again as long as they don’t become stimulated, allowing you to gently transfer them back to the cot.
What if my baby is still fussy or upset in the evenings?
This may not be caused by excess gas. Excess fussiness, particularly in the afternoons and evenings, might actually be caused by the period of purple crying (aka. the witching hour).
Most babies go through this phase, and it can be really difficult to settle them when it’s happening.
I do have some recommendations to help you deal with it and a series of soothing tips that often help.
Click here to read more about the period of purple crying and learn what you can do to calm your little one during this time.