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Children’s bowel habits can vary greatly. Passing stools once or more a day, or every couple of days is considered normal, but less than once every few days could signal constipation. Other signs can include loss of appetite, feeling unwell or unhappy, unusually bad smelling wind or abdominal pain and discomfort.
The causes of constipation in children are usually similar to those in adults:
Your children may not be getting enough fibre in their daily meals. Good sources of fibre include bran cereals and porridge, fruit (including the skin), beans and peas, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, and brown rice. Knowing how fussy children can be about their food, you may have to be a bit creative about how to increase their fibre intake, like adding (preferably, gluten free) oats to their yoghurt. There are also some great tips out there on how to make veggies fun for kids!
It's also important to bear in mind that many medicines will affect the digestive system, and can cause constipation, diarrhoea or nausea, but usually these are only temporary. Cutting down on high-fat and high-sugar foods will also help.
Fluid is an essential part of a healthy digestive system and can help prevent constipation as well as a number of other conditions. Water is best, however you could also encourage pure fruit juices over fizzy drinks. Some juices can have a laxative effect, and they also contain fibre, which helps to keep things moving. Keep an eye on the sugar content though, as even too much fruit sugar can be bad. If in doubt, always try to stick to water!
Colds and flu as well as other illnesses can easily upset the regularity of your child's digestion. They might have a loss of appetite, and might refuse to eat altogether. Drinking water is particularly important during periods of illness, because a lack of fluids causes dehydration which then leads to constipation. Make sure that your child continues to drink water and ideally eat plenty of fibre whilst they're feeling unwell.
Everybody knows that exercise is important for general health and well-being, because it’s good for the heart, the muscles and for burning calories. But it’s also good for avoiding constipation, as it stimulates the whole digestive system and encourages movement of the bowel. Encourage regular walks with the whole family, as this is a great way of getting some fresh air and exercise, and simultaneously benefitting from quality time all together!
The large intestine is host to a whole range of bacteria, some of which are essential to healthy digestion. The good bacteria (probiotics) help to break down food and extract important vitamins and nutrients from the food we eat. The gut is also host to bad (or pathogenic bacteria), which can trigger digestive conditions like diarrhoea and constipation if they have the opportunity to overgrow.
When the balance is tipped in favour of the bad bacteria, you can restore the natural balance in your child's gut by giving them a probiotic supplement. Not only can probiotics help with constipation, but they strengthen your child's immune system, and even stimulate the production of Vitamins B and K, vital for building healthy bones. We would recommend taking a probiotic supplement which is free from artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives.
Constipation in children can be caused by emotional factors, far more than people often realise. If there were any problems during toilet training, then your child may still have memories and negative associations with going to the loo. They might be feeling anxious or nervous, and the stress of knowing that they 'have' to go only makes it worse. Of course, it will be doubly stressful if they have previously experienced any pain when going, in which case they will try and hold on to it for as long as possible. This only makes constipation worse because the contents of the bowel will continually dry out and create hard stools, even more difficult to pass. Experiencing a big change in environment, children starting nursery or school can also become reluctant to go to the toilet and just hold it in until they get home. Some might even lie about going to the toilet, and hope that nobody notices.
It's important to remember to be relaxed and practical when it comes to going to the toilet, because your child might pick up on your own worries and anxiety. The main thing is not to rush, stay relaxed and wherever possible try not to fuss! Most bouts of constipation will resolve after a period of time, but if you are concerned, or if there are any signs of vomiting or severe pain, you should always talk to your doctor, and may also wish to consult a nutritionist.
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