Infant Constipation

Question

What should I do if I think my baby is constipated? He looks like he’s straining sometimes.

Dr. Greene's Answer

Babies will strain from time to time to move the stool along through the intestines. If you want to do something when babies grunt, push, or strain, try picking them up to get gravity to help them in their efforts, or try holding the knees against the chest to help them “squat” — the natural poop position. Straining is usually normal. Crying while straining may be a sign of constipation.

When a child is constipated, the stool in the intestines has backed up more than it should. What “more than it should” means varies depending on the age of the child and the diet. The longer stool sits in the colon, the more water is absorbed back into the body. When a child is constipated the stool tends to be hard, and passing it tends to be painful.

Stool that is hard (firmer than peanut butter) or foul-smelling (you’ll know) in a child who has not yet had solid foods may represent something as simple as needing more to drink (especially during hot weather), but it may also be the sign of a disease. Contact your pediatrician to discuss the situation. And contact your pediatrician if the baby is less than a month old and hasn’t gone for 4 days. At two months old, healthy breastfed babies may go 8 days between stools without being constipated. Healthy formula-fed babies at that age usually go every couple of days. When kids begin to take baby food, the stools change once again. They may be either softer or firmer, but they will likely smell worse (kids also smile and laugh more at this age, more than making up for the unpleasantness). Most children’s intestines are very responsive to the foods they eat.

Bananas, rice cereal and applesauce all tend to produce firmer stools. Carrots and squash are constipating for some babies. Pears, peaches, plums, apricots, peas and prunes make stools softer. By balancing the diet, you can often keep the stools comfortably mid-range. If the stools are still too firm, juice is the gentlest medicine to soften them up. Apple juice twice a day is a good bet. If this doesn’t work, prune juice is even better. Also, when your son is straining, you might want to put him in a tub of warm water. This will relax his muscles and make the stool easier to pass.

Glycerin suppositories can be very helpful if diet and juice don’t work, but constipation that is stubborn enough to make these optimal should be discussed with your pediatrician. The same holds true for baby laxatives (hint: if your pediatrician does recommend a laxative, unprocessed bran, 1/2 teaspoon mixed with food twice a day is much cheaper than Maltsupex, and about as effective).

Last medical review on: December 15, 2009
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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