Baby constipation: How to spot and treat constipation in babies

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  • When you have a new baby the contents of his nappy will become the subject of intense interest. Colour, consistency and frequency are all important signs that all's well in the tummy department and there's no horrible conditions like constipation going on.

    But sometimes babies, particularly those who are bottle fed or just starting on solids, can suffer the discomfort of constipation in babies. Here’s what to look out for and what to do if you suspect your baby is constipated and having difficulty doing a poo.

    Constipation in babies: What’s normal?

    Constipation in babies isn’t uncommon, but the frequency of bowel movements can vary hugely between one baby and another and the parameters of what’s considered ‘normal’ are wide. This can make it confusing for parents who are trying to work out whether their baby is ‘overdue’ a dirty nappy or not. Some babies will produce several dirty nappies in a single day, others may only do one or two a week. Just because a baby hasn’t had a bowel movement for several days doesn’t mean he’s constipated as long as the poo, when it does come, remains soft.

    Baby constipation breastfed babies

    As a general rule breastfed babies do poos that are loose and squirty and don’t smell unpleasant – imagine squeezing a tube of mustard coloured acrylic paint and you’re pretty close. Babies who are exclusively breast fed rarely suffer from constipation. One of the reasons for this is that breast milk contains a hormone called motilin which aids bowel movements.

    Baby constipation bottle-fed babies

    Formula milk can be harder for babies to digest and their stools tend to be firmer, darker and smellier.

    The symptoms of constipation in babies

    All babies can grunt and groan on occasion when doing a poo. Some even go a bit red in the face, but if your baby cries while straining to fill their nappy they may well be constipated.

    – A constipated baby may have hard dry poos like little pellets.
    – There may be little streaks of blood in the poo.
    – They may have foul smelling wind.
    – If your baby is constipated they may have a hard tummy.

    The causes of constipation in babies

    • Incorrect formula mix
    • Introducing solids
    • Change of milk
    • Dehydration

    Preventing constipation in babies

    Incorrect formula mix
    Always make sure that you mix up bottles using the correct amount of formula powder to avoid baby constipation. If it says level spoonfuls then level them off. Get the powder-to-water ratio wrong and your baby could become constipated.

    Introducing solids
    Solid food is a big adjustment for tiny tummies that have been used to their easily digestible liquid diets. Some foods such as root vegetables and bananas can be a bit binding. Introduce new tastes slowly and one at time so that you can identify which, if any, causes the constipation in your baby.

    Change of milk
    A change from breast feeding to mixed or bottle feeding will bring about changes to the content of your baby’s nappy and may trigger a case of baby constipation.

    If a breast fed baby is feeling a little dehydrated it can simply take more milk whereas a bottle fed baby can only drink the contents of its bottle and no more. Dr Gerlis of SameDayDoctor says: ‘If in doubt you can add a water drink as an extra – dehydration is the commonest cause of constipation in babies.’

    How to relieve constipation in babies quickly

    1. Extra water
    ‘Add about one ounce of extra water to every feed so the baby is always getting extra fluid – for hot summer days this is especially important,’ says Dr Gerlis.

    2. A warm bath
    This may help relax your baby. Follow up with the movement and massage suggestions below and you may find that a naked kick around on the changing mat does the trick to relieve the constipation.

    3. Bicycle legs
    Holding your baby’s feet, move his legs as though he were pedalling an invisible bicycle.

    4. Massage
    Try gently massaging your baby’s tummy in a circular motion just below the belly button.

    5. Change of Food
    If your baby has already been weaned then some foods may help. These include pureed apricots, peaches, pear, plums and prunes. You could also try diluted fruit juice.

    Baby constipation: when to worry?

    If none of the measures ease the constipation, or if your baby isn’t gaining weight or shows any other unusual symptoms then do visit your GP.