Constipation in infants is something parents often ask their child’s pediatrician about. Is their child having a bowel movement often enough? What does constipation look like in an infant? Here’s how you can help an infant with constipation — and when to seek care.
What is constipation?
Many believe that constipation is defined by regularity, or how often a person has a bowel movement. When thinking about constipation, it’s also about how difficult or easy it is for a child to have a bowel movement. Straining to pass stool is a sign of constipation, which can be hard for new parents to discern.
“If a baby is having soft, easy-to-pass stools every four to five days, they are probably doing just fine. Breast milk is so nutritious, sometimes a baby’s body absorbs most of it,” said Maria T. Bowling, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Group – Windy Hills. “Infants have weak abdominal muscles, so it often looks like they are straining. But if they’re passing a soft stool after ‘straining,’ it’s unlikely that it’s constipation.”
But keep in mind that what is “normal” for one child can be different for another. Bowel movements for children depend on their age and what the child is eating. You will be able to see what your child’s bowel movement pattern is and notice when there are changes.
How to treat constipation at home
Babies under 6 months old should be given formula or breast milk. If you believe your child may be constipated and is under 6 months old, it’s best to call your pediatrician.
“Your pediatrician is the best person to help you with constipation at home when your child is that small,” Dr. Bowling said.
Constipation often starts when a child is first introduced to solid foods. With some food changes, you may be able to help your child have regular bowel movements. If your child is 6 months old or older, you can try:
- Adding water or fruit juice to your feeding routine: In addition to your child’s regular feedings, offer your baby a small amount (2 to 4 ounces) of water or 100% apple, prune or pear juice a day. The juices contain sorbitol, a type of carbohydrate that can soften stool. Start with a small amount (2 ounces: 1 ounce water, 1 ounce juice) and experiment if your baby needs more or less. If your child’s stool becomes too loose, give less juice.
- Choosing baby foods with good amounts of fiber: If your child is eating solid food, foods such as pureed peas or prunes contain more fiber than other fruits and vegetables. If you feed baby cereal, consider whole wheat, barley or multigrain varieties.
Norton Children’s Medical Group
When to call your pediatrician for constipation
According to Dr. Bowling, you should consult your pediatrician if your child:
- Is younger than 6 months old
- Is straining more than normal or seems uncomfortable or irritable — arches back or cries while trying to pass stool
- Stools are hard or pellet-like
- Infrequent or less frequent bowel movements
- Has blood in the stool
- Does not respond to treatment for constipation
“Do not give your child a laxative, enema or suppository without calling your pediatrician first,” Dr. Bowling said.