Constipation is a common problem for kids in the US— nearly 5 percent of visits to the pediatrician and a quarter of referrals to gastroenterology specialists are due to constipation, according to a report in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care.
Constipation tends to run in families and can start as early as infancy. Yet experts agree that because kids are usually picky eaters, don’t eat enough fiber, and many times, don’t take the time to “go,” they’re all backed up.
And when they don’t go regularly, stool sits and gets dehydrated, making it even more painful to go.
“It’s this vicious cycle— the longer that poop sits there and the longer that the child doesn’t want to push it out, the harder it gets and the worst the cycle becomes,” said Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, pediatrician, executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of Mama Doc Medicine.
The good news is that if your kids are constipated, they don’t have to suffer. Here are 10 ways you can help them get things moving.
1. Schedule potty breaks.
Just like potty training, build 10 to 15 minutes each day or twice a day for kids to sit on the toilet at home “to get back in the habit of having that poop move through the body,” Swanson said.
2. Take a peek.
Your kid might not want you to, but if he’s constipated, it’s important to look at his poop every day. Your child should have a bowel movement that is a peanut butter consistency or softer, every day or every other day. If the stool is clogging the toilet, there’s blood on it or on the toilet paper, or your child is in pain, make an appointment with the pediatrician.
3. For babies, switch formula.
Constipation isn’t usually a problem in breastfed babies, but for those on formula, it might be. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about switching to a different kind of formula or adding a small amount of prune or pear juice to your baby’s bottle.
4. Nix the white starch.
“Things that lack a lot of color tend to be constipating,” Swanson said. So cut down on white foods—bread, crackers, rice, pasta and cheese and add more whole, colorful foods to your kid’s diet.
5. Eat more fiber.
Whole grains are a great source of fiber which also prevent constipation, yet most children aren’t eating enough, according to a recent study in the journal Nutrition Research. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are all good choices.
6. Drink more water.
Fiber-rich foods are great, but your kid needs water to push it through. Aim for at least 1 to 2 cups of water at each meal, according to Dr. Dyan Hes, a pediatrician and medical director for Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City.
7. Cut down on milk
Some kids who don’t eat enough fiber simply aren’t hungry to eat because they’re filling up on milk, Hes said. After age 1, kids shouldn’t drink more than 16 ounces of milk daily and no more than 24 ounces after age 9.
8. Add a little juice to the diet.
Although whole fruit has more fiber and less sugar than juice, experts say it’s ok to give your child 100 percent fruit juice if constipation persists. Four to six ounces of prune or pear juice daily is best.
9. Get moving.
Although exercise won’t cure constipation, it can help to move things along. “When you contract your stomach muscles, it helps propel the stool in the gut,” Hes said.
10. Talk to the pediatrician.
If constipation is still a problem, ask your child’s pediatrician about which over-the-counter remedy is best and how to use it.
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.