If your child is constipated, you know how distracting that can be during the day. My guess is you want to know how to provide constipation relief… fast.
You may want to know how to treat constipation naturally, so that you and your child can move those difficult to pass stools, and get back to normal (literally, and figuratively).
In this article, we’ll talk about constipation, normal bowel movements, why kids get constipated and how to use food and other natural remedies to relieve it.
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 had chronic constipation.
It turns out her son was trying NOT to go during the day at school. He wasn’t taking the time in the morning to go to the bathroom.
When she came to me, Kate was clear she didn’t want her son’s constipation to get bad. She wanted a treatment for constipation.
She wanted to know which foods would help his constipation. And, she wanted a natural way to relieve her son’s constipation symptoms.
We targeted natural constipation relief strategies, including a change in her son’s diet to bring in more natural laxative type foods.
With some additional bowel training, Kate’s son was able to get back on course.
What is Constipation?
Did you know about 5% of general pediatric office visits are due to constipation complaints? Twenty-five percent of all referrals to pediatric gastroenterologists are for constipation.
Constipation is common in kids, and I am seeing it more and more in my practice. Constipation happens when a child (or adult) is unable to or has difficulty emptying their bowels.
Typically, this is due to hardened stool, which can occur for several reasons, including poor diet, dehydration, medications, or a medical problem.
I will be focusing on a more natural, food-based approach (rather than a medical model of constipation management including stool softeners), using foods that are laxative in nature.
[If your child has a more serious issue with chronic constipation, you may need a combination of medication like stimulant laxatives and lifestyle approaches, which should be discussed and guided by your doctor.]
First, a little background information.
What are 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 constipation symptoms?
People with constipation have several symptoms. The following ones should alert you to constipation, but they aren’t always terribly obvious:
Stools which are hard and/or dry and/or difficult or painful to pass
Many days without a bowel movement
Soiling (apparent diarrhea or stool in the underwear, also called encopresis)
Poor appetite and eating
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.
Over time, the feeling of having to go may become 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 chronic constipation.
4 Reasons for Constipation in Kids
There are four main reasons your child might be prone to constipation:
Foods that Cause Constipation
In infants, constipation is rarely a problem, but it can crop up when you start giving your baby solid food.
Baby constipation is merely due to the intestinal tract adapting to the digestion and processing of a more complex food-based diet.
Adding a bit of juice or more water to the diet can help make this transition easier, soften the stools and make them easier to pass. I had to do this with one of my kiddos when we transitioned off breastmilk and on to a full food diet.
In older kids, diet is often the culprit of constipation. Toddler constipation can occur when kids are picky and have a limited diet
Foods that cause constipation such as those with little fiber such as dairy products, or too many processed foods may not support normal bowel movements.
Additionally, when kids don’t drink enough water in the diet (from liquids or fruit and veggies), this 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.
Withholding Stool (Trying Not to Go #2):
There are many reasons children may withhold their stools. 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) are all reasons.
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, leading to a need for regular medications or an enema for constipation.Click Here to Grab Your Constipation Guide!
How to Treat Constipation Naturally
The goal of constipation treatment is to relieve it and re-establish normal bathroom stooling patterns.
There are several ways to treat constipation naturally. 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 also includes establishing a healthy diet and lifestyle that supports your child’s regularity.
This will help every child with constipation.
In severe cases of chronic constipation, medications may be prescribed to “clean out” your child’s intestinal tract.
Some medications soften the stool. These are known as stool softeners (such as Miralax, a stimulant laxative). Other medications help clear out the stool (an enema).
You should always consult with your pediatrician before giving laxatives or enemas to your child.Click Here to Grab Your Constipation Guide!
A Word on Fiber and Constipation
You probably already know a high fiber diet, which includes both insoluble fibers and soluble fibers is key to keeping the digestive system working normally. It makes your child’s stool easier to pass.
Insoluble fibers are not dissolvable in water. They add bulk to your child’s stool. Examples are wheat bran and vegetables.
Soluble fibers dissolve in water. They help lower cholesterol and keep blood sugar levels normal. Examples are oats, barley and fruit.
Your child should drink enough water, also. Of course, exercise is beneficial to the child who struggles with constipation.
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.
Fiber adds bulk and draws water into the stool, making it softer and helping it move through the intestine.
However, 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. This may worsen constipation and block the intestinal tract.
How Much Fiber Do Kids Need?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children get enough fiber in their diet.
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 other guidelines:
- 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 drinking enough water every day, and an extra cup or two won’t hurt.Click Here to Grab Your Constipation Guide!
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 as a quick home remedy for all my families who deal with chronic constipation. 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’ve got an article on the best 17 cereals for kids (according to me!) — they are high fiber and low sugar cereals.
Don’t forget to look at 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!
These can make constipation worse as they are dehydrating, and potentially encourage constipation.
Check with your doctor before using them.
More Quick Natural Constipation Relief Tips
Children should drink enough water and consume plenty of non-dairy sources of fluid, such as 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?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: August 10, 2016
Updated on: May 7, 2019