Natural Constipation Relief for Children
If your child is constipated, you know how distracting that can be during the day. You may be looking for natural constipation relief so that you and your child can get moving (literally, and figuratively).
Kate’s son used to “get sick” right after eating breakfast and just before he boarded the bus for school. Nary a morning passed that he didn’t complain of a tummy ache.
Kate thought he was lactose intolerant since his tummy aches seemed to happen after he ate cereal with milk. Eventually, she took him to the doctor and an ultrasound was done.
The verdict? He was constipated.
It turns out her son was withholding his bowel movements during the day at school and wasn’t taking the time in the morning to go to the bathroom. With natural constipation relief, including a change in diet to bring in more natural laxative type foods, and some bowel training, he was able to get back on course.
Did you know about 5% of general pediatric office visits are due to constipation complaints and 25% of all referrals to pediatric gastroenterologists are for constipation?
In this post, I’m reviewing some of the guidelines I use as part of natural constipation relief for kids. I will be focusing on a natural approach (rather than a medical model of constipation management), including foods that are laxative in nature.
[If your child has a more serious issue with constipation, you may need a combination of medication and lifestyle approaches, which should be discussed and guided by your doctor.]
First, a little background information:
What is considered normal bowel movements?
If your child passes a bowel movement once or twice per day, or even up to once every 2-3 days, without discomfort or pain, he or she is considered to have normal bowel movements.
What are the signs of constipation?
Several signs should alert you to constipation, and they aren’t always terribly obvious. They are:
- Stools which are hard and/or dry and/or difficult or painful to pass
- Abdominal pain
- Tummy cramps
- Many days without a bowel movement
- Soiling (apparent diarrhea or stool in the underwear, also called encopresis)
- Poor appetite and eating
- Cranky behavior
- Notable efforts to make a bowel movement; your child may actually be trying to hold it in
- For some more insight on what might be causing your child’s constipation, read this.
What is Encopresis?
Encopresis happens when stool is withheld in the intestinal tract and grows very large, stretching the rectum. The feeling of having to go may be dulled and your child may not realize he needs to pass a bowel movement.
Sometimes liquid stool makes its way around the large, hard stool in the rectum and leaks out into the underwear. It often looks like diarrhea, but is really a side effect of significant constipation.
4 Reasons for Constipation
There are four main reasons your child might be prone to constipation:
In infants, constipation is rarely a problem, but it can crop up when you start giving your baby solid food. This is merely due to the intestinal tract adapting to the digestion and processing of more complex food.
Adding a bit of juice or more water to the diet can help make this transition easier.
In older kids, diet is often the culprit of constipation. Foods with little fiber such as dairy products, or too many processed foods can encourage constipation.
Additionally, not enough water in the diet (from liquids or fruit and veggies) can lead to constipation.
Low food intake due to illness can throw regular bowel movements off track. Medications may also cause constipation, and certain medical conditions, such as thyroid problems, may make children more likely to be constipated.
There are many reasons children may withhold their stools, such as fear of pain associated with passing a bowel movement, a desire to be independent or have control over visits to the potty (common during the toddler years), distractions, too busy playing, or being afraid to go to the bathroom outside of the home (at school, friend’s house, camp, etc).
Changes in routine, environment, or added stress:
Moving, starting a new school, re-starting school, travel, or difficult relationships are just some of the everyday life occurrences that may throw some children off of their normal stooling pattern.
If constipation is untreated, it may get worse.
The goal of constipation treatment is to relieve constipation and re-establish normal stooling patterns.
There are several ways to treat constipation. The method used will depend on your child’s age and how serious the problem is.
First and foremost, I suggest you try a natural constipation relief approach, using natural laxative agents coming from food. This includes establishing a healthy diet and lifestyle that supports your child’s regularity.
This helps every child with constipation.
In severe cases of constipation, medications may be prescribed to “clean out” your child’s intestinal tract. Some medications soften the stool (such as Miralax, a laxative), while others help clear out the stool (an enema).
You should always consult with your pediatrician before giving laxatives or enemas to your child.
A word on fiber and constipation
You probably already know a high fiber diet, plenty of water, and exercise may be beneficial to the child who struggles with constipation. However, bulking your child’s diet up with fiber may not always work initially.
In fact, a high fiber diet may make constipation worse in some children.
Although fiber adds bulk and draws water into the stool, making it softer and helping to move it through the intestine, added fiber may add too much bulk to the stool, stretching the rectum and colon and interfering with the sense of needing to go, especially in children who tend to withhold their stool.
If your child is “clogged up,” extra fiber combined with poor water and fluid intake can lead to an impaction, which is a worsening of constipation and blockage of the intestinal tract.
How much fiber do kids need?
The AAP recommends that children get enough fiber in their diet, and this depends on their age.
Here’s a quick and dirty calculation to determine how much fiber your child should get—as a minimum—each day:
Age + 5 grams of fiber = total daily fiber
So, a 2 year old would need 7 grams of fiber per day; an 8 year old would need 13 grams of fiber per day.
Other guidelines are as follows:
14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories
And still more:
- 1 to 3 year-olds should get about 19 g of fiber each day
- 4 to 8 year-olds should get about 25 g of fiber each day
- 9 to 13 year-old girls should get about 26 g of fiber each day
- 9 to 13 year-old boys should get about 31 g of fiber each day
- 14 to 18 year-old girls should get about 26 g of fiber each day
- 14 to 18 year-old boys should get about 38 g of fiber each day
Tips for improving your child’s diet
Target five age-appropriate servings of fruits and veggies each day –this will give fiber and water together.
Frequently serve high fiber fruits and veggies, leaving the skin on (prunes, plums, berries, beans, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower).
Swap refined grains like white bread and white pasta to whole grain versions such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and fiber-rich cereals.
Add beans to your meals such as kidney, black or pinto beans.
Make sure your child is getting enough fluids every day, and an extra cup or two won’t hurt.
Natural Sources of Fiber-containing Foods
Fruit nectars are different than fruit juices. Juices that are labeled 100% fruit juice are just that—100% juice. Nectars, on the other hand, may contain added sugar or the addition of other juices.
Because of this, nectars may be more likely to stimulate a bowel movement.
I suggest this for all my families who deal with constipation, and I’ve seen it work in children who are non-mobile due to a medical condition such as cerebral palsy or developmental delay, or other mobility constraint. Tip: warm up the nectar for additional movement potential.
The seeds on berries like strawberries add roughage and bulk to stools.
Cherries or apricots.
These fruits are high in fiber; apricots contain sorbitol, which may have a natural laxative effect.
Sesame, poppy, flax and chia are some examples of seeds; they add a punch of fiber to food. Add them to cereal, or grind in a coffee bean grinder and mix into hot cereal such as oatmeal, or layer atop cold high fiber cereal.
I used this with my first child! I added an ounce of prune juice to her formula every day as we were transitioning to solid food, just to keep things moving along.
Use prune puree or prune juice—they are both high in fiber.
Did you know that 1 cup of prune juice contains about 3 grams of fiber?
This syrup has a good source of magnesium, which can act as a bowel stimulant. Mix into smoothies and hot cereal.
Beans and lentils.
You know these are high in fiber, now you just need to figure out how to work them in your child’s diet! Try salads, soups, quesadilla, and bean dip.
Hot oatmeal, barley, quinoa, and more. Start shifting your refined grains over to whole grain foods for extra fiber.
Breads and cereals.
Not sure which cereals to buy? I spy the serving size! Target at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.
Raisins are a standout, as they have tartaric acid. Researchers have found that one small box per day helped to increase transit time in the gut (translated: bowel contents traveled faster through the intestine).
Fibrous and fabulous. If your child isn’t allergic, dig in!
Note: Fiber supplements can make constipation worse as they are dehydrating, and potentially encourage constipation. Check with your doctor before using them.
Other Helpful Tips
Children should consume around 32-64 ounces of non-dairy sources of fluid, such as water and juices. Watch out for the sugar content of beverages though!
If your child is willing to drink hot tea, perhaps a mint tea would help. Menthol is known to relax muscles…and the entire gastrointestinal tract is one long muscle.
Herbal preparations of senna such as senna tea are not regulated by the FDA or proven safe for children. They could be contaminated and harmful for your child.
Senna is found in tablets or syrup form, such as Ex-Lax or Senekot, and may be used with children who have encopresis.
ONLY use this under the guidance of your doctor.
There is little evidence in favor of probiotics as a cure for constipation, however, anecdotally, I have heard from patients that it can help soften and regulate bowel movements. We need more research in this area.
Removal of dairy may help relieve a child’s constipation.
I suggest trying this for two weeks, and if you see improvement, continue the dairy-free diet. You will need to substitute a fortified, non-dairy substitute, such as soy milk, so that your child gets a good source of calcium and vitamin D.
Be sure to cut back on milk if your child is a big drinker. Two to three cups of dairy per day is enough (that’s 16 – 24 ounces per day), and more than that could be contributing to constipation.
Does your child struggle with constipation?