Observing your baby’s diaper habits is important, since stool is one of the few indicators you get of how well your baby’s digestive system is working. However, because babies are different than adults and a baby’s stool goes through frequent changes in color, consistency, and frequency, stool also becomes a frequent source of questions and concerns for parents: “Is this normal? Is my baby constipated?”
To help you navigate your baby’s diaper with confidence, here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions about bowel movements, along with some ideas that can help you and your baby both feel more comfortable.
What exactly is constipation?
According to the National Institutes of Health, constipation is what happens when stool spends too much time in the colon. The colon absorbs too much water from the stool, making it hard and dry. Hard, dry stool is more difficult for the muscles of the rectum to push out of the body.1
How do I know if my baby is constipated?
The first thing to remember when assessing your baby’s stooling habits is that babies and adults are very different. As a result, what would be cause for concern in an adult may actually be normal for an infant. For example, because infants have weak abdominal muscles, they have to work really hard to have a bowel movement. So, straining at the stool isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, even when the infant cries or gets red in the face. For an infant to have a bowel movement is a major effort, especially because they often need to poop while lying on their back or sitting on the floor.2,3
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests asking yourself the following questions. These signs can suggest actual constipation:
- Is your baby excessively fussy?
- Is she spitting up more than usual?
- Is he having dramatically more or fewer bowel movements than before?
- Are her stools unusually hard, or do they contain blood?
- Does he strain for more than 10 minutes without success?
If your baby shows these signs, consult your baby’s healthcare provider. While it’s probably nothing to be concerned about, there are rare underlying conditions that can be causing the constipation, and it’s better to check it out.
How often does a “normal” baby poop?
Bowel habits of babies are as different as the babies themselves. Some babies go several times a day, while others go every few days or even less frequently. Also, breastfed babies usually poop more frequently than those who are formula fed. Finally, a baby’s stooling habits will change as their digestive system matures and their diet changes.
How long does a baby have to go between BMs to be “constipated?”
Constipation is determined by more than just the frequency of bowel movements. One child may go two or three days without a bowel movement and not be constipated, while another infant might have relatively frequent bowel movements but have difficulty passing the stool. Or a child’s constipation may go unnoticed if he passes a small stool each day, while a buildup of stool develops in his colon. For this reason, it is important to also consider texture, color, size, and ease of passing.4
What stool texture/consistency is “normal?”
There isn’t a “normal” stool consistency, since each baby’s individual digestive system and his current diet will affect his stools. Generally, formula-fed babies have soft, mushy stools; whereas breastfed babies or babies fed formulas that have prebiotics can have loose, seedy stools; and babies eating solid foods will have more formed stools.
Do hard stools mean my baby is constipated?
Hard and dry stools are a common sign of constipation.
Do loose or watery stools mean my baby has diarrhea?
Loose, seedy stools are typical for breastfed infants or infants consuming formula with prebiotics. Watery stools lasting for 24 hours could be diarrhea, and you should contact your baby’s doctor.
What colors of stool are normal?
There is a whole range of normal colors, from bright green to yellow to dark brown, depending on a baby’s diet and her particular digestive system. And, once she starts eating solid foods, you might see purple after blueberries or red after beets.
Click here for a parents’ guide to stool colors.
Are there any stool colors I should be concerned about?
- Black, tarry stool could indicate blood in the upper part of the digestive system.
- Red streaks could be blood from the lower part of the digestive system.
- White stool means that bile is not reaching the stool, either because it is not being made by the liver or because something is blocking it from getting to the small intestine.
If you see any of these, call your baby’s healthcare provider.
What can I do to help my baby poop more comfortably?
As noted above, babies frequently strain to poop due to their weak abdominal muscles, posture, and the general immaturity of their digestive system. That doesn’t mean parents don’t want to help their baby pass a BM more easily and comfortably.
There are a variety of options that you can try at home. These options fall into three categories:
- Over the Counter products
Regardless of what you try, consult with your baby’s healthcare provider first.
Physical options include putting warm towels on your baby’s tummy or bicycling his legs, both of which can help to relax his muscles and loosen the stool. Another physical option is rectal stimulation, which can stimulate a reflex that causes the baby to stool.
Nutritional options work by drawing fluid into the intestine, which helps to loosen the stool. For babies who are not yet eating solid foods, commonly used options include fruit juices (usually prune, apple, or pear). Note that these options do add sugar to your baby’s diet, so they should be used in small amounts.
Once a baby starts eating solid foods, there are additional options. Fruits like prunes, pears, plums, and apricots can provide the same benefit as fruit juices, but without the added sugar.
Specially designed infant formulas can also help promote comfortable stools.
Over the Counter products for infants consist of glycerin suppositories and osmotic-type laxatives. Consult your child’s healthcare provider before using these options. They are normally only recommended by the health care provider if dietary changes are not effective.5,6
For more information:
HealthyChildren.org from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease of the National Institutes of Health: