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There are various reasons why your baby could be constipated. First and foremost, what your baby is being fed will have an impact on their digestive system, and how likely they are to experience symptoms of constipation. Bottle-fed babies are more likely to suffer from constipation than breast-fed babies, because breast milk is more easily-digested. Breast milk also contains the right nutrients to keep stools soft and prevent constipation, and it also protects the baby against germs that can cause diarrhoea.
Constipation can be made worse if you’re moving from breastfeeding to bottle feeding. When doing this, try to make this change progressively if possible. Weaning can also have a similar impact on your baby’s digestion, because the different nutrients in solid foods take a while to adapt to.
If your baby was delivered by Caesarean section, it is also recognised that they will be more likely to suffer from constipation. During a natural birth, a proportion of the mothers gut bacteria will be passed to the baby, including bacteria beneficial for digestion, as they travel through the birth canal. It is believed that babies born via C-Section therefore don’t pick up this level of good (probiotic) bacteria, which means they may possibly be more susceptible to a variety of digestive issues.
Colds and other illnesses which stop your baby from suckling properly can also cause constipation. If your baby can’t feed properly, they aren’t taking in enough liquid, which leads to dehydration and constipation. Your baby can also get dehydrated if their formula milk is too thick, either because you’ve used too much powder or not enough water. Always check the label and directions carefully to make sure you’re using the right amount of water (and don’t over-dilute it!).
Signs of possible constipation include straining when passing stools, sometimes with pain or a little blood in the nappy from a skin tear, going less frequently than normal, and hard or dry stools. If bowel movements become uncomfortable or painful, you might notice that your baby starts to hold it in, which makes things worse. The longer they hold it in, the more water is extracted by the colon and the harder it will be to pass, leading to further discomfort.
Another sign of constipation can be if your baby refuses to feed, or if they pass a lot of wind. If your baby has a lack of appetite and is listless or restless, then constipation could be the cause. Although it sounds odd, constipation can sometimes look like diarrhoea in older babies. This is because the looser stools are squeezing past the compacted harder stools.
There are a number of things you can try to ease the discomfort of constipation for your baby. A warm bath often helps to encourage bowel movement, and gently massaging your baby’s stomach around the navel with a little baby oil can also help. Whether you are bottle feeding or breastfeeding, try some cooled boiled water between feeds. Weaned babies can also have fruit juices such as prune, apple and pear which have a laxative effect. Your baby’s stools can change in colour, consistency and smell from day-to-day, but if you are concerned about anything you should talk to your practice nurse, doctor or a qualified nutritionist.
If you’re breastfeeding, you could consider taking a prebiotic supplement yourself, which can be passed onto your baby through breast milk. Taking a probiotic supplement with prebiotics is advisable, because although the probiotic strains of bacteria may not be passed onto your baby in the same way, they can improve the quality of your breast milk. However, there are also probiotic supplements available that are suitable from birth and specifically formulated to aid babies and infants developing digestive systems, and help to alleviate or prevent any digestive issues.