Identifying and Treating Constipation in Your Baby

Constipation is one of the most common reasons that new mothers call their baby’s pediatrician for advice. While babies do get constipated, many of the incidents that lead to a call to the doctor aren’t constipation at all, but rather a normal change in a baby’s bowel movements. When baby really is constipated, however, it can make for a very unhappy baby and thus an unhappy mother too.

How Long Can a Baby Go Between Bowel Movements?

It isn’t necessary for a baby to have a bowel movement every day, and a space of a few days between dirty diapers isn’t anything to be concerned about. In a breastfed baby, bowel movements can occur as little as once a week, and a space of up to two weeks can be normal. Because the body absorbs breast milk so thoroughly, there is often little waste leftover to form stool. For this reason exclusively breastfed babies rarely become constipated.

How to Recognize Constipation

Merely not having a bowel movement for a few days doesn’t necessarily mean baby is constipated, as many new mothers believe. Constipation occurs when stool becomes backed up in the intestines in a large enough amount to cause pain and discomfort for baby. This is usually noticeable in baby’s behavior and mood. A constipated baby may become fussy or even extremely upset when attempting to pass a stool. This is because the stool has become hard, dense, and difficult to pass. If your child seems to strain when having a bowel movement but is not crying or in pain and passes soft stool, constipation isn’t a problem. In this case, infrequent stool is probably normal for your child at this stage of life.

When your baby starts to pass hard, small stools that are heavy and dense, and is showing significant distress when passing them, constipation is likely, even if the stools are being passed fairly frequently.

Treating Constipation

Most pediatricians will recommend a small amount of fruit juice such as apple juice to get things moving. Remember to closely follow your doctor’s recommendation for the amount of juice, because too much can swing the pendulum in the other direction and cause diarrhea. In severe cases, a glycerin suppository may be recommended to soften the stool and clear out the bowels.

Treating a one-time case of constipation is usually fairly simple and straightforward. If your baby has regular, recurring constipation, however, it’s a good idea to take a look at what you are feeding. A change to a different formula is a good idea, as an intolerance for one of the ingredients in formula is a common culprit in constipation. Your baby may not be able to tolerate cow’s milk proteins and will do better on a soy formula.

If changing formulas does not seem to alleviate the problem, it’s probably time to talk to your baby’s doctor about the ongoing problem, and work together to find a solution. The constipation could be caused by a blockage or another condition affecting the bowels and causing them to fail to move stools along properly. These are rare problems, but warrant investigation if common methods fail to successfully treat your baby’s constipation.

Many babies will encounter constipation at some point, whether from a problem with formula or when starting solids, another constipation culprit. Fortunately, most cases are easily treated and do not become serious problems.

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