Constipation is one of the most common digestive complaints that kids experience. But constipation isn’t just an uncomfortable poo every now and then. When it comes to constipation in children, it can become a vicious cycle that affects their wellbeing. The good news is that there are some easy steps you can take to address any constipation that your child experiences.
Watch the video or continue reading below to learn more about relieving constipation in children.
What is constipation?
Many people think that constipation is just hard, difficult-to-pass stools. But constipation can be more than just those pebbly poos! It is any time that passing a bowel movement is difficult, painful, incomplete, or too infrequent.
You might go to the toilet, but not feel ’empty’ afterwards. Or you might have dark, cracked stools. Even if you feel your movements are normal, but you are only going a few times a week, this would be classified as constipation!
So why is this big deal? Because the problem with constipation isn’t just that it’s uncomfortable.
When bowel movements aren’t passed regularly, the body reabsorbs toxins that it tried to excrete through the gut. The toxins re-enter the bloodstream, and need to be eliminated through another channel.
This puts more pressure on the kidneys, liver, skin and lungs, because they have to work harder to eliminate the toxic load. It can also exacerbate any issues already experienced – for example, if a child has eczema, they may experience more severe symptoms if their skin is having to excrete more toxins.
When it comes to constipation in children, more issues can arise because they can become afraid of going to the toilet. Often I see young kids who have had a bad experience with constipation. They will hold on for longer because of their fear, which just worsens their constipation.
This will cause some serious problems if their constipation and fears are not addressed. Over time, the rectum will accommodate the excess faecal matter. Because of this, their normal urge to go to the toilet reduces because the pressure drops. This leads to a loss of sensitivity, which can further worsen constipation. In fact, constipation is one of the leading causes of children having poo-related accidents.
The main causes of constipation in children
There are countless different factors that can cause and exacerbate constipation in children. But there are 5 common causes to consider.
Simply put, if you don’t have enough water in your system, passing a bowel movement won’t be pleasant! Dehydration is all too common in kids, but it can be caught early. The most important step is to teach kids to recognise the signs of dehydration by looking at their poo. My kids know that if there are cracks in their poo, they need to have a glass of water.
The diet is the most common cause of constipation. The foods that kids eat can affect their bowel movements in a variety of ways. But for the average child, there are two common factors at play – low fibre intake and high intake of processed foods. These are particularly common with fussy eaters who prefer white, bland foods like bread and pasta.
Another thing to note is that formula-fed babies are more likely to be constipated than breastfed babies. If you are formula-feeding, you might want to consider adding a probiotic into their formula to help with their constipation.
Gut bacteria balance
The bacteria within the digestive tract, or microbiome, has a big influence on constipation. Research has found that an imbalance in gut bacteria is linked to constipation. This can become a vicious cycle. The imbalance causes constipation, but constipation also alters the balance of bacteria, which exacerbates the problem.
Good bacteria are thought to play a supportive role in motility – the muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract. So maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is key for healthy bowel movements.
A good balance in gut bacteria is also about diversity. A lack of diversity in gut bacteria has been linked to many kids’ health issues including eczema, allergies and autism. So if we want healthy kids, we want to make sure we build the diversity of their gut bacteria.
Studies have shown that stool consistency is associated with greater diversity in gut bacteria. A healthy stool consistency was linked to a healthy and diverse microbiome, whereas stools that were too hard or too soft were linked to a lack of diversity. So constipation can be a sign that your child’s gut could use some extra support.
Many medications list constipation as a side effect. When it comes to kids, there are two that commonly contribute to constipation.
The first is reflux medication, or antacids. Babies are commonly put on reflux medications to reduce stomach acid. But stomach acid is an essential part of digestion, as it breaks down proteins. When we reduce the digestion in the upper digestive tract, it can lead to more pressure on the lower digestive tract, where stools are formed.
The other medication is antibiotics. While using antibiotics, it’s more common to experience loose bowel movements. But over time, using antibiotics can affect the balance of gut bacteria and lead to constipation.
Of course, antibiotics are warranted sometimes. But you may want to be wary of how many times your child is using antibiotics. It’s also important to replenish the gut with probiotics and prebiotics after using antibiotics.
Lack of physical activity
Today’s kids tend to move less than we did during our childhoods! But this lack of movement can contribute to constipation. Movement and exercise will naturally stimulate the muscles in the gut. So if you have a child who is a couch potato and is constipated, getting them moving might be the key to relief.
Natural ways to improve constipation in children
The causes of constipation and what will relieve it will depend on the individual. But there are 5 simple steps you can take to relieve the symptoms of constipation in children. Because these steps also address the underlying causes, they can help to prevent constipation from returning as well.
#1 – Drink more water
If dehydration can cause constipation, drinking more water can help! Encourage your kids to drink water throughout the day. You can also teach them to recognise the signs of dehydration by looking out for dark coloured or cracked poo.
A lot of kids aren’t keen on water, so it’s important to get them to have a glass whenever possible. Other drinks such as smoothies and even fruity herbal teas can also help to increase their water intake.
#2 – Increase fibre in the diet
When it comes to fibre and constipation, any fibre is a good start. But for the greatest benefit, you’ll want to focus on prebiotic fibre. Prebiotic fibre increases the bulk of the stool, but also feeds the good bacteria in the gut.
Fibre is found mostly in wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables. A simple way to boost your child’s fibre intake is switching white processed products for wholegrain alternatives. If you find it difficult to boost their vegetable intake, check out my tips about getting kids to eat more veggies here.
For kids who are already constipated, prebiotic supplements are often needed. You can use green banana starch in smoothies and baking as a source of prebiotic fibre. Another easy supplement to use is inulin – it’s tasteless, so it’s ideal for fussy kids who don’t like high-fibre foods.
#3 – Promote healthy gut bacteria
Ensuring your child has a variety of good bacteria in the gut is another key step to addressing constipation. To do this, we take a seed and feed approach – put the good bugs into the gut, and then feed them.
You can introduce good bacteria through fermented foods, probiotic supplements and even lifestyle strategies. Many of the good bugs come from the environment, so let your kids play in the dirt and with pets!
You also want to limit the things that damage the gut, such as antibiotic sanitisers and cleaning products.
#4 – Encourage physical activity
The more that your child moves around and plays, the greater the benefit for their gut. If you can get them to play outside regularly, it’s a two-for-one deal. The movement will increase their gut motility, and the outdoors will increase their exposure to bugs that support a healthy gut.
#5 – Consider magnesium
I generally advise people to start with a prebiotic and probiotic when it comes to addressing constipation. But for some kids, magnesium can be beneficial, particularly if probiotics and prebiotics aren’t working as well as expected.
Want to learn more about natural ways to improve your child’s gut health? Whether your child is dealing with constipation or some other gut-related concern, make sure you download my new FREE Gut Health Ebook here.