Posted tagged ‘stool’

Constipation remedies

September 24, 2012

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

Li wrote: “I saw an article you posted about potential causes for excessive urination for children.  One of the mentioned problems involved constipation.  Do you have any advice on where I can find more info on ways to relieve this problem through diet?  I was told build up of old stool is the cause of my child’s urinary problems.”

Constipation is very common, and it can lead to urinary problems like frequent urination, wetting, and painful urination. It’s no fun to be constipated, and I think parents need to treat this aggressively. Untreated constipation leads to harder, even-more-painful stools, which leads to more stool holding, which leads to worsening constipation. It’s what I sometimes dramatically call the Constipation Death Spiral—it gets worse and worse until it’s treated correctly and consistently. Fortunately, all but the most severely constipated kids can be treated with a few simple steps.

What is constipation? Normal stools might be anywhere from three times a day to once every three days—so it’s not really a matter of how often kids go. It’s what it feels like. Stool that’s firm enough or large enough to be uncomfortable is a sign of constipation. If it hurts, it’s constipated. If Junior is holding it in because it hurts, that’s worse constipation. If Junior has gotten so used to holding it that he doesn’t even realize he’s full of stool that leaks sometimes, that’s really bad constipation.

Some kids with significant constipation don’t really complain of pain much. They might have an occasional belly ache (especially after eating), or might only have urinary symptoms or stool leakage.

Why is constipation so common? I believe it comes down to diet. Our guts developed through almost all of human history to digest minimally processed foods. Even people who pursue a very “healthy” diet these days are still eating in a way that dramatically different from what our ancestors ate for thousands of years. It’s not all bad—human nutrition, at least in the developed world, has never been better. For the first time in history we suffer more now from overnutrition than from undernutrition. Still, one cost of all of this abundant, easy-to-eat-and-digest food is chronic constipation.

The first rule of treating constipation is to treat it. Do what it takes to fix it, and keep it fixed, for long enough that new patterns develop and children forget that they used to be afraid of their painful stools. Often parents make half-hearted attempts for a week or so, then give up as things maybe start to improve a little. Take my word for it: if you want to get out of the constipation spiral, you need to be consistent, and you need to be in it for the long haul.

The second rule is to try to avoid relying on enemas or suppositories. Your children do not want you anywhere near their anus. Constipation can almost always be treated orally. If you’re needing to go from the back route, you ought to be doing so while working with a doctor (though, hopefully, not in the same room.)

What can you do to treat constipation? Start by setting up a time, usually after a big meal, where your child is expected to sit on the pot for a set amount of time. The bathroom break isn’t until the child thinks his business is done—it’s until a timer goes off. These kids will sometimes squeeze off a little BM and think they’re done long before they’ve emptied, so you need to reinforce a new habit of relaxing and taking one’s time. I encourage bringing a GameBoy or iPhone or book or something for distraction. Maybe a Wall Street Journal, if your child is into investment banking. Whatever it takes.

From a diet point of view, you ought to encourage more water, more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less dairy. Having said that, it’s very difficult to get children to make big changes in dietary habits, and rarely do diet changes alone fix significant constipation in kids.

Almost all families struggling with constipation will need to use a stool softener of some kind. Natural ones include fruits and fruit juices rich in sorbitol, like prunes, mango, or pears. Apple juice is popular, but isn’t a very effective stool softener. Ground flaxseeds or other sources of bran or insoluble fiber can help soften stools only if the child also drinks extra water. Without extra water, bran products themselves are constipating.

The most popular medical treatment for constipation is PEG 3350, often marketed as “Miralax” or a generic equivalent. This is a white powder mixed in a drink. Once the crystals dissolve, Miralax is flavorless. It helps constipation by drawing more water into the stool. Miralax is FDA-approved only for the short-term treatment of constipation, but it’s routinely used as a long-term maintenance drug safely. Other medicines used to treat constipation include Lactulose, Senokot, and Dulcolax. If you need to use medications, you ought to get more-specific instructions from your child’s pediatrician, who can also screen for rare-but-important medical causes of constipation that might be present.

Constipation isn’t fun, and it can cause significant problems including discomfort, embarrassment, and urinary problems. Unfortunately, some kids learn early on that pooping hurts, and those kids often continue to have issues with stool holding for years. If your child is constipated, please fix it, and keep it fixed. Talk with your pediatrician for more-specific advice, and don’t give up or stop treating it until it’s fixed for good.

Holiday twofer: Bananas, constipation, and corn syrup

December 2, 2008

I’ve got two short questions in the hopper, and I’ve come up with a fairly lame segue to tie them together. So let’s see how it works out: for the first time ever, two questions answered in one blog post! It’s like getting something free for half-price!

First, Claire asked: “Dr. Roy, can a child consume too many bananas to the point it is harmful? My son is a darling toddler who refuses to eat (literally) but he loves bananas. Less than 36 hours ago I bought 13 bananas and he ate them all. He seriously consumes at least 4 or 5 bananas a day (this is with me limiting the bananas-he would eat more if I let him). Every time he sees our bananas in the pantry he freaks out and wants them. Should I be worried? He only weighs 20 pounds so it seems like so much for him to be consuming but when offer other foods he just doesn’t eat. He has always been on the tiny side so sometimes I just want to eat anything.”

I’m not worried about a mostly-banana diet. The monkeys at the zoo look pretty healthy to me.

More seriously: You could try to broaden his diet a little by offering dips or spreads. A banana might be even more yummy smeared with peanut butter or Nutella. You could cut it into little rounds and top them with cottage cheese, or make little banana and cream cheese sandwiches.

As for his overall growth, review this with your pediatrician to make sure he’s tracking along an appropriate percentage. As long as he’s growing normally, I wouldn’t worry about his calorie intake. You should though ensure he’s getting enough calcium, vitamin D, and iron—these are not found in a limited diet. A daily multivitamin is probably a good idea.

The only problem I can foresee is that a diet rich in bananas might be constipating….which brings us to the second question of the post!

A question from Brad: “What is your opinion on using Karo syrup for baby’s constipation?”

Karo is a brand of corn syrup, useful for baking pecan pies. It’s safe and tastes sweet, and is often used to treat constipation in babies. I could find only one study looking at the effectiveness of this approach, lumping in corn syrup with other dietary modifications. It found that this approach relieved constipation about 25% of the time.

Keep in mind that the stooling patterns of babies can be quite variable. At about six weeks of life, breast fed babies may start to have especially infrequent stools, maybe just once a week or even fewer. The stools continue to be soft, and the babies are thriving and happy. Because the frequency of poops is so variable, it’s best to consider constipation only present if the stools are hard and uncomfortable. Infrequent stools, as long as they’re soft, are not constipation.

If your baby is having hard stools, one reasonable step to try is corn syrup. Check with your pediatrician on the exact dosing and how to use it. Keep in mind that corn syrup and honey are not the same thing– never give raw honey to a baby less than one year of age.