To burp or not to burp, that is the question

One evening this past week, after my wife finished feeding our 5-week-old daughter, I took over baby duty. I sat her up on my lap and gave her a few thumps on the back. Not hard enough to hurt, obviously, but just to make her burp.

She didn’t burp. So I gave her a couple more gentle-but-firm whacks, still without a result.

And then I remembered the phone call I got a couple years ago from a mom whose baby wouldn’t burp. It was late at night, probably 10:00 or so. The baby had taken her formula just like normal, but after 30 minutes of trying, her poor mom couldn’t make her burp. And she was really concerned.

I asked a few questions to make sure there wasn’t anything bigger going on. Then I did my best to reassure her and encouraged her to put the baby in her crib and try to get some sleep. Maybe tomorrow would be a better day.

Well, this is baby #3 for me, and I’ve learned a thing or two from other people’s kids as well. I certainly wasn’t worried. But it did make me wonder if burping a baby actually does anything.

Crazy, right? People have been burping babies for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. But humans have done a lot of really dumb things for a long time, and that’s really not a good reason to keep doing them.

What if one night, sitting on a rock around a campfire, some lady just happened to pat her baby on the back at the same time the baby happened to burp? And then that baby grew up and had a baby, and the whole “burping” thing just got passed down. What if babies just burp after they eat, whether we hit them on the back or not? Adults certainly do.

And then, the bigger question: even if we can make babies burp by hitting them on the back, does it matter?

So because I was sitting in a room with a baby who can’t talk (and because I’m a bit of a nerd), I started thinking about how I would design that study. Fortunately, before I wrote the grant proposal to get my burping experiment funded, I checked to see if anyone had studied this before. (Always do that before you do a study.)

And they had! Science is awesome.

I don’t know how I had missed it, because this is the kind of thing I love–I was probably preoccupied with actual sick people. But in 2014, a group did this exact experiment.

They took 71 babies and randomly assigned each of them to one of two groups: the “burping” group and the “control” group. Aside from instructing the parents to either burp or not burp, the babies were otherwise similar. And then the researchers got paid to  wait 3 months to see what happened. (Kidding, I doubt this was very lucrative research.)

The two things they measured were: a) colic*, and b) spitting up. Both of which are completely harmless, but can certainly cause stress for the parents. After 3 months, they looked at records the parents kept about colic episodes and spitting up.

  • There was no difference between the groups with regard to colic episodes. That is to say that babies–at least these 71 babies–will be equally fussy or unfussy whether you burp them or not.
  • The babies in the burping group spit up twice as much as the un-burped babies.
  • They didn’t report whether the “burped” babies actually burped more than the “unburped” babies. I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

I know, I had to read it twice, too. Rocked my world. I’m on baby number 3, and I’ve burped them all. Or at least I’ve whacked them on the back around the same time they burped by themselves. I’ve encouraged other parents to do it as well, and even demonstrated a technique handed down from some cave woman.

But it looks like this is just another example of how kids do just as well, or maybe even better, if we just leave them alone.

For what it’s worth, we stopped burping our baby 3 days ago. It saves us about 16 minutes per day. She hasn’t exploded or spontaneously combusted. She doesn’t seem any fussier than before. And while I’m not sure if she spits up less, it’s certainly no worse than before.


*If you’re wondering what “colic” is, I am, too. There’s a formal definition, but it’s kind of made-up. Essentially, colic in when a baby cries more than a parent thinks they should for some unknown reason. There are three main causes for colic:

  1. Parents who that think their baby is crying more than usual for an unknown reason.
  2. Babies who actually cry more than usual for an unknown reason.
  3. Babies with actual medical problems that cause them to cry more than usual…which isn’t really colic, anyway.

I wrote more about colic (whatever that is) here.

As always, your comments are welcomed (even if you happen to disagree). I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Please try to keep it civil--I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “To burp or not to burp, that is the question

  1. Colic? My baby had it for four months, ignored by doctors, found out she had a faulty heart.
    meanwhile doctors had blamed it all on me, as a nervous mother? what rot.

    I know another mother ignored for so long, the babys bad heart wasnt treated when it should have been. COLIC? check babys heart…………… young man now, needs a heart transplant.