There are several causes of constipation in babies. These may include dehydration, changes in diet, medications, and various health issues.

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Constipation affects approximately 7.8% of infants up to 12 months of age and approximately 29.6% of children of all ages.

Signs of constipation include difficulty passing stools or having fewer than two bowel movements a week. Stools may also be hard, dry, or lumpy.

This article outlines possible causes of constipation in babies alongside prevention tips and treatment.

It is common for a baby to have constipation when they first begin to take infant formula. This is because formula milk is often more difficult to digest than breast milk.

One 2018 study in Japan looked at the bowel habits of over 83,000 newborns. It found the most common cause of constipation was transitioning from breastmilk to infant formula.

Babies may also experience constipation when they first start eating solid foods. This type of food may cause constipation as their body learns how to cope with digesting new things.

This may take a few days to resolve. If the symptoms of constipation do not improve, the parent or caregiver may wish to contact a doctor.

If a baby has dehydration, it may cause constipation.

Dehydration occurs when water losses from the body exceed water replacement. There are various reasons why an infant may not be getting enough fluids, causing dehydration.

Possible causes of dehydration in infants include:

  • increased fluid loss, such as from:
  • decreased fluid intake — for example, illnesses such as a cold or pharyngitis may cause the baby to take in less fluid

Some medications and dietary supplements may also cause constipation in infants. These include:

Several health issues may also cause an infant to develop constipation. These include:

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the most common cause of constipation in children is due to them holding onto their stool to avoid or delay having a bowel movement.

If a stool remains in the colon for too long, the colon will absorb too much fluid from the stool. This can cause the stool to become hard and dry and make it difficult to pass.

A child may attempt to delay or avoid a bowel movement for several reasons, including:

  • feeling stressed about potty training
  • being embarrassed to use a public bathroom
  • not wanting to interrupt playtime
  • being scared of having a painful or an unpleasant bowel movement

As infants grow older, they may begin to hold onto a stool for too long.

A doctor will often use the following factors to diagnose constipation and find its cause:

  • the child’s medical history
  • the child’s family history
  • a physical exam
  • medical tests

Questions a doctor may ask

The doctor may ask the following questions to the child’s caregiver:

  • How often does the child have a bowel movement?
  • How long has the child had these symptoms?
  • What do the child’s stools look like?
  • Do the child’s stools have red streaks in them?
  • Are there streaks of blood on the wipes or diapers?
  • What is the child’s daily routine, including:
    • physical activity
    • day care
  • What medications does the child take?
  • What are the child’s eating habits?

What happens during the physical exam

During the physical exam, the doctor may:

  • check the following:
    • blood pressure
    • temperature
    • heart rate
  • check for signs of dehydration
  • use a stethoscope to listen to sounds in the abdomen
  • check the abdomen for
    • swelling
    • tenderness or pain
    • masses, or lumps
  • perform a rectal exam

The doctor may use the following tests to help diagnose the cause of constipation:

  • Blood tests: These can help the doctor look for signs of:
  • Stool tests: These tests can help the doctor look for signs of blood in the stool as well as signs of infection and inflammation.
  • Urine tests: Checking urine can help show signs of a bladder infection, which may result from constipation.
  • Imaging tests: In some cases, a doctor may use imaging tests to look for issues that may be causing constipation. These tests include:

A person can often help treat an infant’s constipation at home by ensuring they drink plenty of fluids.

If the infant is eating solid foods, it is also important to ensure they are eating enough high fiber foods.

A parent or caregiver may also wish to try the following steps to help get things moving:

Medication specific

If the infant has constipation associated with a certain medication, a doctor may recommend stopping the treatment. They may also change the dose or switch the medication to a different one. A parent or caregiver should always talk with a doctor before stopping any medications.

In some cases, a doctor may also suggest an over-the-counter laxative, enema, or glycerin suppository to help treat constipation.

If a child is slightly older and has constipation due to holding onto a stool for too long, the parent or caregiver may wish to help change their routine to help treat constipation.

This may include:

  • asking a potty-trained child to use the toilet after meals to build a routine
  • using a reward system when the child uses the bathroom regularly
  • taking a break from potty training until the constipation symptoms resolve

Learn more about constipation in babies.

A parent or caregiver can help prevent an infant from having constipation by ensuring:

  • the infant drinks enough fluids
  • they are eating enough fiber if they are consuming solid food
  • that having a bowel movement becomes part of their routine

Constipation is very common in babies. There are several causes, including dehydration, changes in diet, some medications, various health issues, and behavioral reasons.

Parents and caregivers can treat constipation in several ways. These include ensuring the baby drinks enough fluids and adding high fiber foods to their diet if they eat solid foods. A doctor may also prescribe laxatives or enemas to treat constipation.