Baby and newborn constipation

As with adults, constipation can also affect newborn and older babies, especially during weaning. Read on to discover some of the signs of constipation and learn how to help your baby find relief if she or he is constipated.

What Is Constipation in Babies?

Constipation is when your baby finds it difficult or even painful to poo, or is unable to pass a stool. Your baby may be constipated if he or she experiences hard, dry bowel movements. If your baby is constipated, bowel movements may be more infrequent than what’s typical or normal for your baby. To understand baby constipation, it’s important to know what baby poo is usually like. Every baby is different, and there’s a broad range of what’s considered normal, but once you get used to your little one’s bowel movements, you’ll find it easier to recognise what’s normal (or not) for your child. As a general rule, when everything is regular breastfed babies tend to have more frequent and softer bowel movements than babies who are fed with formula. Either way, though, until your baby is weaned, his or her stools will typically be soft and pass easily. After you start to introduce solid foods the poos will become firmer and less frequent. It’s at this point that constipation may be more likely to strike from time to time. Because every baby’s bowel movements are different, when you’re trying to decide whether your baby or older child has constipation, it’s more important to look at the consistency of the poos – how hard or soft they are – rather than how often or easily the bowel movements occur.

What Are the Signs of Constipation in Babies?

The following signs may indicate your baby is constipated:

  • Pooing fewer than three times a week

  • Hard, dry or lumpy poos or poo that comes out in little pellets

  • Poos that are bigger than usual

  • Your baby finds it hard to poo and may look like he or she is straining

  • Poo and wind may be smellier than usual

  • Reduced appetite or a tummy ache that gets better after doing a poo

  • Traces of blood in the poo (this is caused by a large, hard poo making a tiny tear in the anus on its way out)

  • A firm tummy

  • In children over 1 year old, soiled underwear can (surprisingly) be due to constipation. This happens when runny poo, or diarrhoea runs around a hard stool that’s causing a blockage.

How Long Can Your Baby Go Without Doing a Poo?

The frequency and consistency of your baby’s bowel movements can vary from day to day, and every baby is different. A baby who is consuming formula may fill anything up to five nappies a day when newborn, which can decrease to once a day after a few months. Breastfed babies may poo after every feed in the first few weeks, then after about six weeks things may get less predictable: Although your breastfed baby may average two or three bowel movements a day, he or she could also sometime go for as long as 7 to 10 days without a poo, but still not be constipated. Keep in mind that sometimes a baby can be straining or crying while trying to do a poo, but still not be constipated. If your baby grunts or gets a little red-faced in the process of passing what turns out to be a soft, perfectly normal stool, this is just because he or she has not yet learned to properly relax the pelvic floor muscles to let the poo out. In this case, holding your baby’s legs up and bending them at the knees may help.

What Are the Causes of Infant Constipation?

Possible causes of your baby’s constipation could be:

  • Dehydration. Not getting enough fluids can make your baby’s poo harder, leading to constipation. There are plenty of reasons your child might not be getting all the liquids he or she needs: Teething pains, a sore throat or an ear infection might put him or her off drinking, for example.

  • Incorrectly mixed formula feeds. Making up formula feeds with too little water can make it thicker, which can lead to constipation.

  • Weaning. Introducing solid foods to your baby’s diet without giving enough water-based drinks between meals can also lead to the dehydration that can sometimes cause constipation.

  • Not enough fibre. Once your child is eating solid foods it’s important that he or she gets enough high-fibre foods, like pulses, fruit and vegetables to guard against constipation.

  • Potty training hitches. If your child feels pressured to use the loo during potty or toilet training or is frequently interrupted while trying to use the potty, it might prompt him or her to ‘hold it in’, leading to constipation.

  • Stress or anxiety. In older children, anxiety about a major event or disruption – like a change of house, the arrival of a new sibling or starting at nursery or primary school – might trigger constipation.

  • Underlying illness. In very rare cases, your baby’s constipation may be caused by an underlying condition such as Hirschsprung's disease, hypothyroidism or cystic fibrosis. This isn’t something you need to be unduly worried about though: your baby’s constipation is far more likely to be linked to diet or fluid intake.

How Can You Help Your Constipated Baby?

Treatment for constipation depends on your child’s age. If you think your baby might be constipated, make an appointment to see the doctor, who may recommend some of the following remedies to help get things moving again:

  • Water. If you’re formula feeding your baby, offering a little water between feeds may help, although you shouldn’t dilute the formula itself. When adding water to powdered formula, it’s important to follow the instructions on the packaging carefully to ensure you don’t add too much or too little water. If your baby is less than 6 months old, the water you give him or her should be boiled and cooled back down again to sterilise it. Breastfed babies who are not yet on any solids don’t need additional water between feeds. Ask your health visitor or doctor about whether you should be giving your baby extra breastfeeds if you suspect dehydration. Once your baby is eating solid food, offer extra sips of water from a free-flow cup during meals to ensure your little one stays nicely hydrated. Keep in mind that water or other drinks shouldn’t be used as a substitute for breast milk or formula as your child’s main drink until he or she is fully weaned.

  • Tummy massage. Ask your doctor or health visitor how to gently massage your baby’s tummy for some welcome constipation relief.

  • Leg exercises. With your baby lying on his or her back, gently move your little one’s legs in a bicycling motion. This can stimulate the stomach muscles and move things along.

  • Fruit juice. If your baby is weaned, small amounts of a diluted, preferably unsweetened fruit juice such as apple or pear can also help. These juices contain sorbitol, which can help to relieve constipation in babies. (Avoid giving prune juice to babies under 9 months old as it contains a bowel irritant.)

  • Certain fruits and vegetables. Once your baby is eating solid foods, give him or her pureed foods such as prunes, pears, peaches and peas. These can help with constipation since they contain more fibre than other fruits and vegetables.

  • Cereals. Try feeding your child porridge, wholewheat, multigrain or bran-based infant or breakfast cereals once he or she is eating solid foods. These are another great source of dietary fibre.

  • Laxatives. If none of these remedies or dietary changes seem to be helping, depending on your child’s age your doctor may recommend or prescribe a laxative medicine.

When Should You See the Doctor?

The earlier your child’s constipation is treated, the sooner it is likely to clear up, so it’s always advisable to see a doctor or talk to your health visitor as soon as possible if you suspect things are getting a little blocked up.

The Big Picture

Constipation is more common among babies who have started weaning. If your baby is passing hard poos, or if it’s been an unusually long time between poos (based on what’s normal for your baby) speak to your health visitor or doctor for personalised advice. Depending on your baby’s age, giving more water to keep your baby hydrated, cycling your baby’s legs to stimulate a bowel movement, or giving certain fruit juices or high-fibre foods may help get things moving again. Although constipation can be uncomfortable for your baby, if you spot the signs of constipation in good time and make some simple changes to your little one’s diet or fluid intake, it should resolve quickly.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below.
The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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