If your child has been having a hard time having a poo, you’ll probably be concerned, and rightly so. For some children its just super hard to push the poo out, it hurts! I remember as a pre-schooler having an acute fear of the potty when I was constipated, the whole experience seemed so daunting! So impossible! I was taken to the doctor and given some medicine. Luckily for me this was a one-off. For many children medication for constipation becomes an ongoing way of life. For other children, its a long time between bowel movements. Often the lack of regularity is combined with a difficulty passing the stool. The longer the poo stays in the bowel the harder and dryer it gets, making it trickier to move it on out.
If your infant or child is having constipation issues, you’re probably wondering why. And wondering if there are any natural ways to support bowel function. Here are our naturopathic top ten tips!
First up, how will you know your infant or child is constipated?
- They strain excessively when going to the toilet, perhaps to the point of tears or real pain.
- They get sore tummies regularly and may get bloated.
- They are fearful of going to the toilet or potty.
- Their poo is very hard and dry.
- They have wet seepages of runny poo (this can happen when small bits leak out around the larger stools which aren’t moving) which may cause soiled undies.
- They hold their bottoms or wriggle around looking uncomfortable a lot.
- They wet their beds or get recurrent urinary tract infections.
- You’re concerned that they aren’t having a bowel movement very often.
Before we get into the top tips, the most important thing is early intervention. If in doubt, talk to your GP or healthcare provider for a diagnosis. The longer the lower bowel/rectum gets regularly stretched with hard poo, the more it stretches and loses tone, and the more difficult it becomes to improve function. Also some causes of constipation include medications and iron supplements, so be sure to rule out any obvious triggers.
Top 10 Tips:
1.Drink Up! Hydration is Key
Dehydration is a major and common cause of reduced bowel function. Ensure your child is drinking enough water and fluids. Encourage glasses of water with meals, drink bottles to be emptied during the school day, and offer extra glasses of water or herbal teas throughout the day.
2. All Kinds of Fibre
If your child has a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains then fibre should be no issue. Sometimes the bowel isn’t moving because of a lack of fibre and too many processed foods in the diet (refined flour in crackers and biscuits, processed meats etc).
Fibre can be broken into three categories:
Soluble Fibre: mucilaginous/slippery fibre, carries water, as is found in linseeds, slippery elm, legumes, psyllium, oats, barley, and fruit and veg.
Insoluble Fibre/Roughage: Difficult to digest, as is found in wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, dried nuts, beans. This improves bowel transit time (how fast your food turns into poo)and undergoes fermentation by gut bacteria to produce beneficial fatty acids.
Resistant Starch: Like insoluble fibre, resistant starch is fermented in the gut for positive benefit. Found in wholegrains, cold cooked potatoes, lentils.
Ideally, for constipation, increase all kinds of fibre in the diet:
- Add ground flaxseeds or LSA to breakfast daily (see number 4 below).
- Add dried peas, lentils, legumes, beans to most meals (as a side dish or as part of the meal); hummus is also a good addition to meals, or a good spread for toast.
- Aim to have 2/3 of plate as vegetables (vegetables, salads, lentils, etc)
- Use wholegrains instead of refined or white grains; quinoa, brown rice, etc
- Increase fibre slowly so as to avoid excessive griping or flatulence.
- Extra fibre such as psyllium hulls, slippery elm powder or oat bran may be of benefit.
- Please note when adding extra fibre, you must also have extra water!
3.Fruits and Vegetables
We know we need our 5+ Fruit and Veg a day. The guidelines might have even been changed to 7+. I’ve heard some say that 10+ is actually optimal. The take home message here is that we need lots of fruit and veg for lots of different health reasons! As mentioned above, fresh fruit and vegetables are rich in fibre, which supports the bowel. Some fruits also have special effects on the bowel, most famously prunes and kiwifruit. Keep offering extra fruit and veg at every occasion, and slip them into everything you make (grated carrots in the meatballs, banana in the cookies, grated apple in the porridge, every trick in the book).
4. Super Simple Linseed Solutions
This is one of the easiest natural remedies for constipation. As mentioned above, soluble fibres attract water and bulk and push on the wall of the bowel to stimulate movements. Linseeds/flaxseeds can be used ground up, added to breakfasts like porridge for extra fibre, or whole, using the overnight soak method. The overnight soak method is more action packed and effective, whereas using ground linseeds regularly in the idet is great for maintenance of bowel regularity. To use the overnight method, use 1-2 teaspoons (an adult might use 1 Tablespoon, so dose to suit your child’s age) of whole linseed. Put in a small glass and cover with water (approx 30-60ml depending on how much seed is used). Cover and leave overnight. In the morning you should have a nice glassful of goopy slime with seeds in it. Yep, what child doesn’t like slime these days? Your child can eat this by the spoonful or it can be put on top of porridge or cereal, or blended with other goodies into a smoothie. Do this daily, experimenting with how much seed and water to use.
5. Avoiding Triggers: Reactivities and Intolerances
Even if your child has been tested for allergies with a skin prick test, and everything has come up clear or inconclusive, they may still have a reaction to a food or foods which is contributing to constipation issues. I have seen this in my practice countless times. Most commonly dairy or wheat/gluten is the culprit. It usually takes about 4 weeks of removing these foods from the diet to see real improvement. Occasionally random foods such as bananas or pumpkin can come up in testing and when removed from the diet for a period of time, the bowel can normalise. Unless the cause is obvious its usually easier to use hair testing methods to determine sensitivities. This fast tracks improvement and second guessing, because when there is more than one trigger, its much harder to be a detective! Restrictive diets are only ever a first step and should not be continued in children indefinitely, so always work with a practitioner to make sure your child is getting their full nutritional requirements met.
6. Magnesium: Mineral Magic
Magnesium is a wonderful mineral that encourages nerve and muscle relaxation. The bowel has muscles right along it, and so for some children, magnesium supplementation can be supportive for bowel function. Other signs of possible low magnesium include increased stress or anxiety, muscle cramping, difficulty falling or staying asleep. See your practitioner for appropriate forms and dosage for your child. Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) in the bath are a simple way to introduce magnesium into your child’s life and help to relax the body and bowel. For more on magnesium, click here.
7. Herbal Soothers to Smooth the Move
While there are indeed gentle herbal laxatives that can be appropriate to use for some children, many herbs work in other ways to support the bowel. Herbs that improve bile flow from the liver and gallbladder naturally support the bowel because bile is our best natural laxative. Bile stimulates peristalsis, the natural movement of the bowel that pushes the poo along. Herbs that are appropriate for using here may include Dandelion Root and Licorice. Herbs that aren’t appropriate, unless under professional guidance, are those which stimulate the bowel to move more directly. These contain compounds known as anthraquinones, and shouldn’t be used because of the danger of developing a dependency. This list includes strong laxatives such as Senna and Cascara. If in doubt its worth seeing Registered Medical Herbalist or Naturopath for the best support.
8. Probiotics and Prebiotics
We all know that our gut flora is crucial to our wellbeing. Most of this flora is in the bowel or large intestine, which is where the constipation happens. As you’ve read above, fibre is a key prebiotic to promote a healthy intestinal environment. Probiotic bacteria are also key for bowel function. Specific strains are used in constipation, and some specific strains are especially good for children. If your child has had recurrent antibiotics in their life, or was born by caesarian section, they will have an increased need for bacterial balancing in the gut and may benefit from a probiotic supplement. Probiotic yoghurts (dairy or coconut) can also be beneficial, as can fermented foods such as sauerkraut and miso. For more on your bacterial balance read here.
9. Massage & Movement
Massage: This is especially good for babies but can be used for older children too. Massaging along the line of the bowel, ie. up the right side of the torso/belly (ascending colon), along the middle of the belly (transverse colon runs along between the line of the belly button and ribs), and down the other side (descending colon). You can use just your hands, or choose a nice oil or massage balm that your child likes the smell of.
Movement: Has your child been sitting too much- school, car, TV, Lego? We all know that regular physical activity is so important for bowel motility (movement). Try having and extra run/bike/walk around the block before dinner on days without much movement. Or head to the local park for some frisbee and fresh air.
10. Emotional Support: Conquering the Fear
If your child has developed a phobia or anxiety around toileting or pooing, its important to support them through this. Any pressure to ‘perform’ will be counterproductive! Often once the poo is moving more easily, this fear can have a chance to be overcome. Sometimes however, an unfortunate incident triggers an anxiety response that doesn’t go away even when the bowel does normalise. In such situations, calming your child’s nervous system is so important. Herbs such as Chamomile and Lemon Balm can be useful here, as can certain Bach Flowers or Flower Essences such as Mimulus (for fear of specific things) and Chestnut Bud (for learning new things). Talk to your herbalist or naturopath about the best remedies for your child.