Most of us are aware that a healthy diet, adequate fluid intake, an active lifestyle and correct toilet habits can reduce the chances of constipation. Infants on solids can be particularly vulnerable to constipation and many parents are surprised by the sudden pellet-like appearance of their bub's poo when they start on solids. In young children, toilet training can also be followed by bouts of constipation.
What is constipation?
Constipation is the passing of dry, hard poos. This can be accompanied by discomfort or pain. Yes, it's upsetting for everyone concerned.
Part of our fluid intake each day comes from the fluid in food. However, if there is a lack of fluid intake (or a drop in fluid levels) in the body, the intestinal canal can wring out even more fluid than usual, leaving dry, compacted faecal (poo) matter. The longer that poo sits in the bowel, the more water/fluid is reabsorbed by the body.
Poo should be formed, soft and easily passed. Keep in mind every person has their own, individual bowel habits – children are no different. Some children poo once every two or so days, others every day, some two to three times a day whatever is usual for your child should be your benchmark. So, it is important to be aware of any changes. A little one who poos daily and then suddenly doesn t go for days may well be constipated.
But also remember that constipation is signalled by more than just frequency. Other signs of constipation include:
- Hard dry stools
- Poo that resembles pellets
- Difficulty in passing a poo (this may be associated with or without tummy ache and pain)
- Tummy aches and pains
- Holding onto a poo for fear of pain
In young children, persistent constipation can cause runny poo to leak into their underpants; this is termed soiling .
What causes constipation in babies and children?
Constipation can be caused by a few things; even weaning and early potty training can be a reason. The common causes of constipation include:
- A lack of fluid intake or loss of fluid
- Some formulas may be more constipating than others
- Incorrect formula-to-water ratio
- Dietary issues such as a lack of fibre or excessive intake of foods (such as refined foods) or fluids (such as milk); these can displace foods rich in fibre
- Putting off going to the toilet, as can happen in newly toilet-trained tots or due to the busy schedule of a young child, or not wanting to use the school toilets
- Some supplements such as iron
- Some medications
How do you prevent constipation?
Of course, prevention is always better than the cure.
Constipation in babies
Breastfed babies don t tend to become constipated as long as they are thriving, gaining weight and having plenty of breast milk. If you sense that your baby (who is not yet on solids) is experiencing constipation without an obvious reason, consult your GP or child health nurse as soon as possible.
Of course, hotter weather can be an issue. If you are wondering about offering baby (who is not yet on solids) some water, check with your child health nurse first. Generally, breastfed babies don t need extra water as long as they are breastfeeding frequently.
For formula fed babies check:
- The ratio of formula to water. Ensure that the scoop is not tightly packed. Measure the water first. Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations.
- That the formula is right for your baby, not all formulas are right for every baby.
For babies who are around six months of age and eating solids remember:
- Babies kidneys are not yet fully developed and not as adept as adults at handling the waste products from the digestion and metabolism of food. Infants kidneys use more water to remove waste products from the body. Some babies do just fine with an extra breastfeed; others may need to start drinking extra cooled, boiled water.
- Take care with legumes and fibre cereal. Excessive lentils, peas and fibre cereals can interfere with fluid, which is why they tend not to be offered in the early stages of solids.
What and when should infants drink?
It is difficult to offer a definitive guide on how much a baby will drink; this can depend on whether they are breast or formula-fed, how often they feed, what types of solids they eat, the temperature, and more. Regularly offering your little one water may help, especially on very hot days.
- As solids are increasing in volume in the diet, it becomes more important to monitor the amount of water a child is drinking, particularly when milk feeds are being replaced by solid foods.
- Water is the best option. Avoid offering your baby fruit juice or cordial.
- Ensure that drink bottles and cups are placed in easy-to-see and reachable positions and check the levels throughout the day.
For more on why juice is not recommended in infancy or early childhood, see our tip sheet on juices.
What about prune juice?
Offering your baby fruit juice to help with constipation is not advisable. Any benefits gained from fruit juice tend to be counter-productive to nutrition. Likewise, the addition of sugar or sweeteners is not recommended.
Bottle or cup?
Sipper cups can be introduced around the time of solids. Offer cooled, boiled tap water around eating times. Just a few sips can make a big difference. Even if baby takes a while to adjust to the taste of water, continue offering.
Reducing the risk of constipation in children
Children can also be prone to constipation.
- Encourage a diet rich in fruit and vegetables (as well as containing fibre, they keep the bowel healthy)
- Ensure your child is eating plenty of wholegrain foods such as breads, cereals, rice, nuts and seeds.
- Children who have adequate diets but suffer from constipation commonly do not drink enough fluid (water). Ensure water is always accessible and remind children to drink (the thirst reflex takes time to develop). About 400-800mls of fluid a day is the average for most young children as they do get some fluid from food.
- Avoid offering too much milk and other calorie-dense fluids as they can displace food and fibre.
- Encourage physical activity, which can help the small muscles in the intestines to move food. Reduce screen time and encourage your child to be more active.
Not all fibre is the same; some will increase the passage of stools through the intestines whereby types of fibre slow it.
Not all starch is digested and absorbed. Some starch, termed resistant starch (RS), passes undigested through the small intestine to the large intestine where it can be fermented by bacteria in our intestines. RS has known benefits such as glucose and insulin control and colon health. Foods that contain RS include: grains (excluding rice) and foods made from whole grains such as wholemeal bread and wholegrain cereals, bananas, potatoes and legumes.
What to do if your child has constipation
Mild constipation will generally resolve itself by one or more of the above suggestions. If, however, the problem persists and/or your child seems uncomfortable, it's important they are examined by a doctor.
IF YOU ARE UNSURE OR SYMPTOMS PERSIST, SEE YOUR MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL
Children should always be supervised when given nuts and seeds due to risk of choking.
Edited and reviewed by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse July 2021.
Last Published* December, 2022
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.