One of the hardest challenges with constipation is when it happens in toddlers. This is because it is harder for a toddler to tell you what is wrong other than “it hurts”, and also treating their constipation may be trickier as toddlers may be fussy about certain foods as their palate hasn't fully developed yet which can restrict what foods you give them to help ease the problem.
Reasons your toddler may be suffering from constipation
Some of the common reasons your child may be suffering from constipation are:
1. Not drinking enough water
It's important that toddlers stay hydrated to keep their digestive system working effectively in order to eliminate waste. Toddlers don’t really know how to recognise they are thirsty, so don’t wait for them to ask for a drink, but give them some water regularly throughout the day.
Tip: Avoid giving them too much fruit juice or squash as these can be high in sugar, which can be inflammatory to their delicate systems, and definitely no fizzy drinks. If you need to get them to drink more fluids but they really don’t like ‘plain’ water, then dilute some apple or pear juice – one-quarter apple juice to three-quarters water.
2. Dairy products
Dairy in some children can be inflammatory and, like adults, they may have an intolerance to it which can cause the stools to become sticker and therefore 'get stuck'.
Tip: Milk is a great source of calcium at this important growth stage, but if you think your child may be sensitive to dairy then try cutting cows milk out and swap for milder alternatives such as goats milk, as well as adding other calcium rich foods to their diet (see below). This previous blog on food intolerances and constipation will give you more advice and guidance around determining dairy intolerances, which can also be applied to toddlers.
3. Lack of fibre
Fibre is very important in the diet at any age, including toddlers, and especially if they have constipation - as fibre helps to bulk up the stools and keep them moving through their intestinal tract. I have listed some fibrous foods a bit lower down the page.
Tip: Pureeing prunes and figs (and mixing with a little mashed banana if you need to sweeten it or disguise the taste) is an easy way to give your toddler a fibre-boost. Remember to make sure they drink water afterwards as well otherwise you could be compounding the problem, as fibre needs water to keep the stools moving and prevent blockages.
4. Lack of exercise
It is completely natural for a child to be active and running around at this age, and the added benefit is that exercise helps to keep their digestive system moving, just as in adults as previously discussed in 'Exercise to relieve constipation'. You may also that find your toddler has become sluggish and tired as a result of being constipation, so it really is important to get them to move around more.
Tip: Try and fit in even 10 minutes of exercise for your toddler a day, whether it's walking (or scooting) to nursery, going to a playground or park, or running around the garden. You can also put some music on and get them to dance with you, which makes it fun as well!
Additional advice for toddlers with constipation
You can give your toddler a probiotic to help keep their digestive system healthy and prevent constipation. OptiBac Probiotics ‘Bifidobacteria & fibre’ is a really good brand and can be given to children from 1 year+ (for those even younger they have a specific product for babies) I wouldn't personally recommend laxatives as these can be too harsh on a toddler's young digestive system, and it can also cause dependency which will be setting them up for an on-going health battle with their gut in later years).
Look to add the following foods to your toddler’s diet as they contain that all important fibre, and also good levels of calcium (especially if dairy is playing a part in your toddler's constipation):
- Wholemeal bread
- Sweet potatoes with skin
- Baked beans
Talk to your toddler and reassure them
At this age, they just know that something like constipation ‘hurts’ which unfortunately can create a vicious circle whereby your child starts to fear going to the toilet for exactly this reason. This can cause them to ‘hold it in’ which can make it worse. By talking to them, and explaining the importance that they eat certain foods and drink enough water, will help reassure them that their pain (constipation) will pass.
Potty training may be a stress for them as well so perhaps consider slowing down the potty training process, and also make sure that they aren’t too young or it’s too soon for them. Every child is different so don’t worry if other parents have succeeded in potty training their child already – if your child starts to refuse going to the toilet or isn’t ready this will cause anxiety and will actually lengthen the whole process, as well as putting strain on their digestive system. Have patience, and talk to your doctor if you are concerned.
For more information read Megan's piece on childhood constipation here. Have patience, really look at your toddler’s diet and if you are still worried or concerned then do talk to your doctor, but it is quite common for toddler to suffer from constipation and in most cases I have seen it is short-lived.