toilet paper with a smiley face

Constipation is a very uncomfortable and even debilitating condition that affects all ages from newborn to the elderly. It’s actually one of the most common reasons for parents to take their young child to the paediatrician in the early years.

What is constipation?

There is actually no easy answer and as strange as this may seem, there has been lots of medical debate around what exactly constipation is. The average child will pass a bowel movement once a day. Usually a child who has a bowel movement fewer than three times a week and whose stools are hard and difficult to pass we can call constipated.

It’s quite normal for a child at some point to experience a bit of constipation but if it’s causing a change in behavior – including mood and eating habits – it’s important to seek help.

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Signs and symptoms of constipation in children include:

  • Stomach ache
  • Nausea
  • Moodiness
  • Crying during bowel movements
  • Soiling pants
  • Loss of appetite
  • Avoiding the toilet – your child may cross legs, clench buttocks, sweat, cry or turn red.

Diet-related causes of constipation in children:

Although there are a number of factors that can cause constipation in children, including stool retention, fear of discomfort, change in routine, lack of physical activity, medication and illness, diet plays a major role, too. The culprit in many cases of a child’s constipation is a diet that includes a:

  • High intake of processed foods, dairy and sweets
  • Low intake of fibre
  • Not drinking enough water

Changing a child’s diet may seem daunting so we have included some easy ideas that you can implement over time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is the feeding journey.

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How to prevent constipation in children through dietary changes

  • Eat the rainbow. Teaching children about eating healthy is important and at this age you can explain the benefits of healthy foods. Create family challenges to see how many different coloured foods each family member will eat. You can incorporate different vegetables in cooking and in baked products with your child, as the aim is to encourage acceptance of the new veggies as opposed to ‘hiding’ them. This will increase the soluble fibre content in their diets.
  • Boost fibre. Some vegan superfoods are great to increase fibre content and smoothies are gaining popularity in this age group. You can add some hemp seed powder, chia seeds and nut butters to boost the soluble fibre intake.
  • Limit starchy foods. Refined starchy foods are often the preferred foods for children meaning less space for soluble fibers from fruit and veggies. Cut the starch portions in half at each mealtime and include the favourite items from the other food groups to make up the difference. Don’t push variety within the other food groups initially. Even if you serve the same food at each meal and snack, you can add variety later once you have managed to moderate your child’s starch intake.
  • Decide on a treat day. Many schools have a strict lunchbox guidelines but if the decision is entirely yours, you can decide on a treat day with your child and put the treat in her lunchbox on that day. It’s important that the foods in the lunchbox are appealing to her taste buds, easy to eat and fun. In that way, treats won’t be missed. Kids often give up fruits and veggies when they have access to too many treats so here is a suggestion to manage treats thus leaving more room for tummy friendly foods.

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  • Drink water. One of the most important elements to prevent constipation includes water drinking. Not always easy to get your child to drink enough water so Encourage a family water-drinking competition. At the end of each day, see who drank the most, and do the same at the end of each week. Use a bar graph chart and let your child colour in the bars at the end of each day and see the water intake increase. Adding some cut-up fruit to the water will give it some nice infused flavor making it more enticing.
  • Choose fruit. Avoiding too many sugary foods will help prevent constipation. Fruits are wonderful sweet alternatives. Baking some healthy muffins full of veggies and fruit is an example of adapting traditional sweet foods so they are healthier options. Dried fruit, dates, raisins and freeze-dried fruits also make healthier treats. Fruit pouches are great sweet lunchbox add-ons.

Kath is a clinical dietitian with special interest in paediatrics. Her private national and international practice is not only built on assisting her little patients with their nutritional needs but also offering support to moms and dads. She is a regular speaker at baby and toddler seminars, runs workshops on infant and childhood nutrition, writes for leading publications and she is a respected author in her field. Kath sits on three international boards including the European board for feeding premature infants.