How to Treat Infant Constipation

Various different juices with fruit

Do you think your baby might be constipated? Parents tend to get worried when they observe changes in their baby’s bowel habits. This usually occurs between 2-6 weeks of age. Around this time, the frequency of a baby’s bowel movements will usually decrease (especially with breastfed babies). A decrease in the number of times your baby poops doesn’t necessarily mean he is constipated. What is happening is your baby’s digestive system is maturing and his body is better able to digest and absorb the nutrients in milk. As a result, there is less poop.

You may also notice your baby “straining” when having a bowel movement or passing gas. Parents also associate this with constipation, but that is not always the case. Straining, grunting and groaning is common, especially around 4-6 weeks of age. Your baby is becoming aware of his body sensations. As your baby strains, he is learning which muscles do what and how to poop. The straining will decrease once he becomes a pooping expert. However, if your baby cries while straining, there is a problem.

Constipation refers to the compactness of the stools and the difficulty passing them. Babies are usually NOT constipated unless they experience all of the following signs...

  • No bowel movement in three days (for bottle-fed babies) or one week (for breastfed babies)

  • Firm, dry, pebbly stools

  • Crying while having a bowel movement

* For breastfed babies, normal infant stool is soft or runny. It is yellow or mustard to orange with little white flecks that look like seeds. Frequency: It can vary from every feed to once or twice a week. Breastfed babies are rarely constipated because breast milk is almost 100% completely digested. Many breastfed babies do have infrequent bowel movements, however this does not mean that they are constipated.

Baby crying wearing wool cap

* For bottle-fed babies, normal infant stool is soft paste. The color is grayish green, yellow, tan or brown depending on the type of formula. Frequency: Once or twice every 1-2 days. Formula fed babies usually battle constipation more often. This is because formula is not as easily digested and used by a baby's body.

Causes of Infant Constipation:

  1. Insufficient fluid: If your baby is not getting enough fluid in the form of breast milk, formula or water, this can lead to constipation. The colon will steal water from the waste material and give it to the body, causing the stools to be water-deprived and hard.

  2. New foods: For breastfed babies, it is common to experience constipation when solid foods are first introduced into the diet or if he is switched from breast milk to infant formula. This is because his body is not used to digesting anything other then breast milk. Make sure you introduce new foods slowly to allow time for him to adjust. Some foods such as cheese, ice-cream, yogurt, white bread, spaghetti, bananas, corn and potatoes are known to cause constipation. Small amounts of these foods are usually not a problem.

  3. Different types of formula: Formula-fed babies are more at risk of becoming constipated than breastfed babies. Certain formulas such as lactose-free or thickened formulas can be more constipating for some babies. Switching formula can also lead to constipation.

How to Relieve Infant Constipation

There are many things you can do to help relieve your baby of constipation. Try a warm bath and a tummy massage to get things moving. Gently but firmly massage your baby’s abdomen in a clockwise direction using long strokes. Alternate this with “bicycle legs.” Place your baby on his back and lightly hold his legs in a half-bent position. Gently begin to move your baby's legs as if he is riding a bicycle.

Crying baby wrapped in toilet paper on bathroom floor

Other ideas include:

* Water ~ Increasing the amount of water you offer your baby is usually effective in treating constipation. For infants older than 2 months, give them 2 to 4 ounces of water twice a day in addition to their usual fluid intake. If constipation doesn't improve, give them 2 to 4 ounces of fruit juice (grape, pear, apple, cherry or prune) twice a day.

* Sugar ~ Sugar works by drawing additional fluid into the baby’s bowel to soften the stools. You can add some form of sugar (brown sugar or corn syrup) to your baby’s formula. Or you can offer it in a small amount of water after you dissolve it in and cool it down.

* Fruit Juice ~ Apple, pear, or prune juice can be extremely effective at relieving constipation. However, it is not recommended for babies less than 3 months of age.

* Fruit and vegetables ~ If your baby has started eating solids, adding more fruits and vegetables to his diet will help with constipation developing in the first place.
Give your baby food that is high in fiber (peas, beans, apricots, prunes, peaches, pears, plums or spinach) twice a day until constipation improves.

* Medications ~ Laxatives should only be used if natural remedies have failed or if constipation is severe. Many laxatives are not suitable for infants. Make sure you consult with your doctor before using medications.

Important Note:

Call your doctor right away if:

  • Constipation remains a persistent problem.

  • Your baby is not gaining weight.

  • The number of wet diapers each day is less than 6.

  • Your baby’s poop has blood in it.

  • You notice any bleeding from the anus.