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Easing the Pain of Infant Gas

Michael O. Schroeder


We all have gas. Though it may be embarrassing for grown-ups and sometimes problematic, the awkward gastrointestinal certainty is usually a -- ahem -- passing issue. However, when infants experience persistent discomfort from excess gas, it can be particularly distressing for parents.

"Babies can have increased gas, which could cause fussiness," says Dr. Eric Barth, a pediatrician with Allina Health Clinics, which is based in Minneapolis. It can leave a baby out of sorts and lead to lots of tears. Fortunately, experts say there are simple steps parents can take to ease an infant's painful gas.

To start, parents are often encouraged to try the most close-at-hand measures. Physical comforting measures like swaddling a baby and burping can be just as effective -- or more effective -- than medication, says Dr. Neil Herendeen, director of Golisano Children's Hospital Pediatric Practice in Rochester, New York.

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In addition, ensuring that the baby has some tummy time during the day may help. "Sometimes that tummy time can put just enough pressure on the tummy that it kind of helps the gas get out," Barth says. Of course at bedtime, he reminds parents that babies should be laid to sleep on their back -- the current recommendation for safe sleeping.

For infants with gas issues, Barth takes into account whether they're breast-fed or bottle-fed. "If the baby is breast-fed, then one of the things I talk to the parents about first is mom's diet," he says. "Because there are certain foods that mother may eat that are known to potentially cause increased gas and perhaps fussiness for the baby. That includes foods like broccoli and cauliflower, peppers and onions, beans and cabbage and dairy." He recommends mom eliminate or reduce those specific foods in her diet to see if that makes a difference.

For babies who are bottle-fed -- either given pumped breast milk or formula -- Barth suggests considering changing the bottle or nipples to possibly reduce the air a child swallows, along with liquid, which can increase gas. That might mean switching to a slow-flow nipple, since slowing the flow of liquid can sometimes result in the baby swallowing less air, too, he says. It could also involve using an angled bottle (where failing to consistently tip up a regular bottle could increase the air a child gulps), or a bottle with a bag inside that collapses as the baby drinks. "The theory is that hopefully results in less and less swallowed air," Barth says.

For formula-fed babies, he says it may help to switch to a "sensitive" formulation in which protein in the formula are partially broken down to make it easier for the babies to digest them. And, he adds, parents might consider switching from a powdered formula -- in which bubbles can be introduced when water is added and the mixture is shaken up -- to concentrated or ready-to-feed formula.

Over-the-counter infant drop medications are also available to ease a baby's gas. The formulations contain the active ingredient simethicone, which is supposed to break up gas bubbles into smaller bubbles; however, it's not been proven to consistently provide relief to infants. "Studies suggest it's not all that effective -- but it's very safe to try," Barth says. He and other pediatricians say some parents do report the medications help.

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U.S. News, in partnership with Pharmacy Times, surveyed 271 pharmacists about what they would recommend to a person seeking infant gas products. Of those, 223 -- or 82 percent -- suggested Mylicon Infant Gas Drops, while 35 (13 percent) recommended Little Remedies Little Tummys Gas Relief Drops. The rest (13, or 5 percent, of the pharmacists surveyed) recommended PediaCare Infant's Gas Relief Drops.

Herendeen notes that Mylicon was the first in the market and is more widely recognized as a result, but he and other pediatricians interviewed didn't prefer one formulation over another.

Besides medication, clinicians say some parents use a homeopathic remedy called gripe water. Though it doesn't contain simethicone, gripe water often contains trace drops of ginger, which is supposed to help soothe stomach indigestion, Herendeen says. But he adds there's no comparative research to prove the remedy works. Experts warn that there's a potential that gripe water products may contain unintended, unsafe ingredients, particularly for products made outside the U.S. Herendeen recommends parents planning to purchase gripe water do so at U.S. pharmacies, while neither Barth nor Herendeen actively steer parents toward using gripe water.

Where an infant's discomfort persists, Dr. Gary Chun, pediatrician with Scripps Clinic in San Diego, says parents should pay a visit to the child's doctor. This can also help rule out other health concerns that may be to blame, from a food allergy or intolerance to constipation. "I do think if parents are concerned about a baby's unhappiness, a visit to the pediatrician is warranted," he says. Parents should take infants to the emergency room for more serious issues, including non-stop crying, fever, more forceful vomiting or bloody stools, Herendeen says.

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Fortunately, Chun says, most babies do recover quickly from excess gas-related discomfort. And some gas, he adds, is a sign that the baby's digestive system, one of the last major systems to develop, is working properly. He hopes knowing that provides at least some measure of comfort to parents -- as they make every effort to relieve the discomfort of their babies.


Michael Schroeder is a health editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at mschroeder@usnews.com.