Worrying about your baby's health when you can tell something isn't quite right with them can be stressful. If your baby isn’t pooing as often as normal and seems distressed, they may be struggling with constipation.
We’ve all been there. Not being able to go to the loo can leave you pretty uncomfortable – and the same goes for little ones. Even though it’s so hard to see your baby upset, the condition is common and can be dealt with. Find out the causes of baby constipation, the symptoms and how to help a constipated baby.
What causes baby constipation?
The NHS suggests several potential reasons for baby or infant constipation:
• They aren't eating enough high-fibre foods like fruit and veg
• They aren't drinking enough
• They are having problems with potty training
• They are worried or anxious about something, such as moving house, starting nursery or the arrival of a new baby
Dehydration is a very common cause of constipation in newborns, especially when the weather is warm. As well as this, weaning, introducing solids or new foods can also temporarily cause constipation while your baby’s body learns how to manage them.
Constipation in infants may also be caused by a milk protein intolerance or allergy. If breastfeeding, the milk protein can be passed through the breast milk from the mother's diet. Once you do begin weaning or introducing solid foods, a milk allergy will become more apparent as dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese will trigger a reaction.
Is my baby more likely to be constipated on formula?
‘Babies on formula are also more likely to become constipated than breastfed ones because formula milk is harder to digest,’ explains GP Philippa Kaye, author of Baby & Child Health: Everything You Need To Know.
As formula milk is harder to digest, it produces more fully formed poos which can be harder for your little one to pass. If you change brands, similarly to introducing new foods, this can cause constipation while your baby's body gets used to the formula. If your baby has a milk protein allergy or intolerance, a milk-based formula may cause the baby to become constipated.
What are the baby constipation symptoms?
Obviously, the most obvious newborn constipation sign is your baby not passing poo as often as usual. What is normal varies from child to child but within time, you'll get a pretty good idea of what is normal for your little one. As a rough guideline, the NHS says your newborn may be constipated if they don't poo at least three times a week. It is quite common for a baby's bowel movements to change once they move to solid foods - they could go from pooing three or four times a day to just once.
Another sign of constipation can be your baby straining or finding it painful or difficult to poo, which may cause them to make little grunting noises. ‘They may also be distressed, seem uncomfortable or strain to open their bowels, and do small, hard, pellet-like poos’ says Philippa. If your baby does find it painful, they may also hold back from pooing which can cause a vicious circle. Other symptoms to look out for are a hard stomach, stomach pain, gassy and refusing food.
If your child is potty trained and they start to soil their pants with diarrhoea this could be a sign of constipation. When runny poo leaks out around the hard or constipated poo this is called overflow soiling.
• Read more: Prune juice for constipated babies and toddlers
How to help a constipated baby
If you are solely breastfeeding, ensure they are feeding regularly and you give them breast on demand. Breastfed babies do not require any other drinks.
‘If your child is younger and breastfed, they don’t need extra water, even in hot weather,’ says Philippa. ‘Although they may need more breast milk, which adapts to their needs – for example, if the weather is warm, your milk can become more watery to give the fluids your baby needs.’
2) Formula fed
Formula fed babies can have water in between feeds but never dilute their formula milk. You must always follow manufacturers guidelines on formula milk properly and if you decided to change brands discuss this is with a GP or health visitor.
3) Cycle their legs
With babies who are not yet walking and physically active, when they are lying on their back you can try cycling their legs in the air. This can help stimulate bowel movement and help their digestion.
If your newborn has constipation you can try gentling massaging their stomach.
5) Variety of foods
If your baby has moved onto solid foods include plenty of fruit and vegetables as they contain fibre which will aid their digestion and keep them regular. A small amount of diluted fruit juice such as apple or orange juice can also be helpful.
6) Pureed foods
If your baby is over six months old but you have not transitioned to solid foods, introducing purees could stimulate digestion. If you are already following baby led weaning but your infant is struggling with constipation, you could try pureed food as it sometimes easier for babies to digest.
7) Encourage physical activity
This obviously doesn't apply if you have a newborn or young infant. However, if your child is crawling or walking always encourage them to stay active as that can really help with digestion.
8) Potty training
Once your child is at potty training stage, get them into a routine of sitting on the toilet after meals and before bed. Praise them whether they poo or not as it encourages them to have a good relationship and attitude towards going to the toilet. Sitting on the potty or toilet is particularly important for boys as if they wee standing up they forget to or avoid going for a poo.
9) Potty training step
While your child is using the potty or toilet, put their feet up on a step as this is a better position for bowel movements.
10) Warm bath
A warm bath can help to soothe or relax your baby which makes it easier for them to pass stools.
11) Sore bottom
If your little one has been straining or struggling to pass stools this could result in a sore bottom which will only make matters worse. Make sure you wash them well with water after going to the loo and you allow them time without a nappy on. You can also look into nappy rash creams but if your baby's skin is cut or blistered you need to be careful what you apply.
12) Stay calm
It is important that your child has a good relationship with going to the toilet once they are at potty training stage. Reassuring your child and staying calm mean they will see it as a normal part of life and not a stressful or shameful situation. Many children struggle to go to the toilet when they are away from home but if you encourage a positive relationship it should make this transition easier.
13) Visit your doctor
If none of these baby constipation relief methods and at home remedies work, it might be time to visit your doctor. Your doctor can prescribe baby constipation medicine such as suppositories or laxatives that will help with your baby's digestion.
If your baby is suffering from constipation and you are concerned, it is always best to contact your doctor or health visitor.
For more information and support:
• Read up on the NHS guidelines on constipation in babies and young children
• Check out The Children's Bowel and Bladdery Charity's website ERIC or contact their helpline on 0845 370 8008.
• Take a look at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline on constipation in children and young people.