How to Help a Constipated Infant
There are jokes galore about how often infants have bowel movements. But infants can go a long time between having a movement. That's why parents often find themselves wondering if their infant is constipated. In this case, it is good to know how to help a constipated infant. After all, newborns cannot communicate, so parents work very hard to read their child's signals.
Constipation in Infants
Infants have weak abdominal muscles, which makes them have to try harder to pass stools. They're lying on their backs, so gravity is not working in their favor. Infants also lack awareness. They typically strain and make facial expressions freely when they have a bowel movement, which may make parents think that they are constipated all the time.
Interestingly, infants have bowel movements according to the type of food they consume. For instance, infants who drink formula typically have more frequent bowel movements than breastfed babies. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), infants who drink formula may have a bowel movement at least once a day. Although some may go one to two days between a bowel movement, most formula infants may have one or more movements a day.
On the other hand, in the first month, infants who drink breastmilk typically have more than one bowel movement each day. If a breastfed infant only has one bowel movement a day, they may not be consuming enough breastmilk. As a breastfed infant gets older, they may go several days without a bowel movement. Breastfed infants tend to use every last drop of their feedings.
It's challenging to define constipation in infants because their bowel movements can vary. Constipation is less about how often an infant has a bowel movement. It's really about how much of a challenge it is for an infant to pass stool.
What Are the Main Causes for Constipation in Infants?
Constipation in infants does not occur often because infants are on a liquid diet. However, it can happen. Formula-fed infants are more likely to experience constipation. The formula tends to create firmer stools than breastmilk. Also, allergies can cause constipation, even in breastfed infants. Breastfed infants can react to items found in their mother's breast milk.
Signs of Constipation
Every child is different, so parents need to become familiar with their infant's bowel movement schedule. During an infant's first month, their digestive system adjusts to drinking and matures quickly.
In the first week of life, infants have about one to two bowel movements a day. However, at the end of the first week infants can have as much as 5 to 10 movements a day and then quickly decrease as infants adjust to feedings. By the time they are five to six weeks old, an infant may have one bowel movement or less each day.
Some breastfed babies may go without a bowel movement for days while others go after every feeding. Constipation is infrequent in infants who consume only breastmilk, but it is still a good idea for parents to monitor the frequency of their infant's stools.
Some signs of constipation:
- Formed, hard, pellet-like, or dry stools
- Difficult feedings
- The infant's belly feels firm and stiff
- Stool that is bloody or black
- Signs of straining
- The infant appears uncomfortable or distressed
- Arching of the back or crying when straining
- No bowel movement for 5 to 10 days
What Are the Treatment Options?
Parents should contact their pediatrician before initiating any of the following treatment options. For constipation, a pediatrician may recommend different options.
A glycerin suppository can provide enough lubrication to help an infant pass hard stool. Although effective and available, over-the-counter glycerin suppositories should only be used when necessary.
Laxatives are not typically given to infants unless prescribed by a doctor. Laxatives include psyllium powder (Metamucil) or malt-barley extracts.
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What Can Parents Do?
There are things a parent can do that do not require a visit to the doctor. Parents may want to try these interventions to help ease an infant’s discomfort.
Adjust Feedings or Change Formula
If fed with breast milk, an infant may need more frequent feedings. For formula-fed infants, parents may want to check the correct formula requirements. Otherwise, changing an infant's formula might help relieve their constipation.
Play with the infant and get them to move their limbs. You can also gently move their legs in a cycling motion. Encouraging an infant to move around is an easy way to alleviate constipation. The increased activity can stimulate bowel movement.
Give Your Baby a Warm Bath
A warm bath can soothe an infant and help them relax. When muscles relax, an infant is more likely to have a bowel movement. Just be careful, some infants will go unexpectedly in the water.
When to Seek Medical Assistance
Although constipation is usually not an emergency, you may need to contact your pediatrician if your infant is constipated and:
- Has blood in stools
- Is less than two months old
An infant's bowel habits can be a mystery, especially for first-time parents. Diaper changing for an infant can seem random and unpredictable. However, parents can make sense of a baby's bathroom habits with a little time, and some information from trusted sources.