Is Your Child's Diet Causing Constipation?

Close shot of baby eating a banana
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Constipation in children is a frustrating problem for many parents, and dietary changes may offer relief. However, sometimes parents don't realize their children are constipated. It's easy to mistake the symptoms for a potty training problem in younger children. Older children may complain of stomach aches if they are constipated.

What Causes Constipation?

For the average child, constipation is usually caused by a combination of high fat and low fiber in the diet. This might include drinking too much whole milk, eating a lot of other dairy products, and not eating a lot of fruits and vegetables.

Some quick and easy changes to your child's diet that may make it less constipating can include changing to low-fat milk or soy milk (as long as your child is at least 2 years old), both of which can be less constipating than whole milk.

Limit your child's intake of milk to about 2 cups per day and avoid other foods that can be constipating, including bananas and most dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. If limiting dairy products because of constipation, be sure to find an alternative source of calcium, such as calcium-fortified orange juice.

If your child is constipated, you should limit cooked carrots, most high-fat foods, such as french fries and processed foods, and white rice. You should increase the amount of fiber and bran in your child's diet by feeding him more high fiber foods. Increase your child's intake of fluid each day, especially water and apple, pear, and/or prune juice.

Preventing Constipation in Young Children

Foods and drinks that are often thought to help prevent constipation include many fresh fruits that you eat with the skin on, including apples, grapes, and peaches. Also helpful are many fresh fruits with high water content, such as watermelon and cantaloupe.

Add High Fiber Foods

  • Raw vegetables
  • Beans
  • Raisins
  • Prunes and figs
  • Foods made with whole grains (such as whole wheat bread)
  • Shredded wheat
  • Popcorn (caution: choking hazard for younger kids)
  • Bran cereals and bran muffins
  • Fiber wafers
  • Vegetable soup

Constipation Treatment

Be sure to talk to your child's pediatrician for more help with treating or preventing constipation in children. In the meantime, learn to read food labels to choose foods that are high in fiber.

Consider using a stool softener or laxative if dietary changes are not quickly helping your child's constipation. Although there are many OTC medications available, Miralax (polyethylene glycol) is a popular option, as it has no taste or odor, works well, and is tolerated by most children.

A schedule of having your child trying to have a bowel movement twice a day can be helpful to get them in the habit of going. Choose a time, such as right after meals, when they are most likely to have a bowel movement. Don't force them. Simply encourage them to try to go for a few minutes.

Regular exercise can sometimes help children have more regular bowel movements. Be sure to see if constipation is listed as a side effect of any medicines that your child takes on a regular basis.

Encopresis, in which your child has stooling accidents, can be a complication of constipation. Keep in mind that constipation often takes months and months (if not longer) to correct, that constipation can sometimes be caused by something more serious than a simple diet problem. Constipation sometimes requires an evaluation by a pediatric gastroenterologist for more help.

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