If you are a parent, you probably watch your baby’s every laugh, hiccup, and cry for clues about their well-being. Some signs of a problem, though, can be a little more difficult to detect. Bowel movements, for example, will change a lot over the course of your baby’s life. From time to time those changes may provide a sign that your baby is constipated.

A baby who exclusively consumes breast milk may not have a bowel movement every day. Often, nearly all of the nutrients are absorbed. This is very common. In fact, babies who take only breast milk almost never become constipated. Formula-fed babies, on the other hand, may have up to three or four bowel movements in a day, or have a bowel movement every few days. Still, normal bowel movement patterns in healthy babies vary widely and are greatly affected by type of milk, whether solids have been introduced, and what specific foods are being consumed. Understanding the possible signs of constipation can help you detect a potential issue before it becomes a big problem.

Learn more about common signs of constipation.

Infrequent bowel movements

The number of bowel movements a child has each day will fluctuate, especially as you introduce them to new foods. If your child goes more than a few days without a bowel movement, and then has a hard stool, they may be experiencing constipation. Constipation is defined not just by the frequency of bowel movements, but also by their consistency (i.e., they’re hard).

Straining

If your child is straining to use the bathroom, this may be a sign of constipation. Constipated babies often produce very hard, clay-like stools. Hard stools can be difficult to pass, so they may push or strain more than usual to pass the waste. They may also be fussy and cry when having a bowel movement.

Blood in the stool

If you notice streaks of bright red blood on your child’s stool, it’s likely a sign that your child is pushing very hard to have a bowel movement. Pushing and straining or passing a hard stool may cause tiny tears around the anal walls, which can result in blood in the stool.

Firm belly

A taut tummy could be a sign of constipation. Bloating and pressure caused by constipation may make your child’s stomach feel full or stiff.

Refusing to eat

Your baby may feel full quickly if they are constipated. They may also refuse to eat because of growing discomfort.

If you notice signs of constipation, you can try several strategies to offer your baby relief. These include:

Switch up the milk

If your baby is breastfed, you can try adjusting your diet. Your baby may be sensitive to something you’re eating, which could be causing the constipation, though this is uncommon. Bottle-fed babies may benefit from a different type of formula, at least until the constipation clears. Sensitivity to certain ingredients can cause constipation.

Use solid foods

Some solid foods can cause constipation, but others can also improve it. If you recently started feeding your baby solid foods, try adding a few high-fiber foods, such as:

  • broccoli
  • pears
  • prunes
  • peaches
  • skinless apples

Instead of refined cereal or puffed rice, offer cooked grains, such as barley, oats, or quinoa. Whole-grain breads, crackers, and bran cereals also add a lot of bulk to stool, which may help clear the constipation.

Use pureed foods

If your baby is over six months and has not made the transition to solid foods yet, try some of the foods listed above in their pureed form. Keep in mind that fruits and vegetables have a lot of natural fiber that will add bulk to your child’s stool. Some are better than others at helping stimulate a bowel movement.

Up the fluids

Proper hydration is essential for regular bowel movements. Water and milk are great for keeping your baby hydrated. For babies over 6 months, occasional prune or pear juice may help speed up your child’s colon contractions, which may help your baby produce a bowel movement more quickly. If the juice is too sweet or tangy for your baby’s palate, try diluting it in a cup of water. Talk to your doctor before giving your baby under 4–6 months anything besides breast milk or formula.

Encourage exercise

Movement speeds up digestion, which can help move things through the body more quickly. If your child isn’t walking yet, leg bicycles and other movements may be helpful instead of walks.

Massage

Gentle stomach and lower-abdomen massages may stimulate the bowels to pass a bowel movement. Do several massages throughout the day, until your child has a bowel movement.

Switching up things in your child’s diet (or your own) will almost certainly help, but if it doesn’t, there are other techniques you can use. Many of these techniques you can do at home, but if you have not used them before, you should consult your doctor. They will want to offer you specific instructions.

These techniques include:

Glycerin suppository

If your baby previously has had signs of an anal tear (bright red blood in the stool) after passing a hard stool, a glycerin suppository may occasionally be helpful for easing a bowel movement out of the body. These suppositories can be purchased over the counter and used at home. Follow the instructions on the package if your child is over 2 years old or ask your doctor before using if your child is under 2 years old.

Laxatives

Over-the-counter laxatives for babies over 6 months may be helpful when other techniques do not work. Laxatives made from a malt-barley extract (Maltsupex) or psyllium powder (Metamucil) can soften your older child’s stool, but they are not recommended for babies. Talk to your doctor before giving any laxative to a baby under 1 year old.

If you are confused or concerned at any point, don’t hesitate to call your child’s pediatrician. In almost all cases, your child’s constipation will clear on its own or with a natural treatment or two. If those strategies don’t work, asking your doctor for advice or suggestions will be helpful. Your doctor will also be able to help you spot other signs and symptoms (such as fever) that could be an indication of a larger problem that may require medical treatment.

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