Experts agree that the best remedy for constipation is prevention. According to Jan Hangen, RD, LDN, a clinical nutrition specialist at Children's Hospital Boston, there are three key ways to prevent constipation in young children:
- A healthy, high-fiber diet with fruit, veggies, and whole grains
- Adequate intake of water
- Adequate physical activity, which helps the intestines to move stool along
The problem that many parents face, of course, is how to get their child to eat a healthy diet. "I am a big fan of stealth nutrition," says Hangen. In other words, it is OK to be sneaky to get the fiber to go down. The goal is your child's age plus five in grams of fiber per day. So, if you have a three-year-old, aim to get her to eat eight grams of fiber daily.
In addition, Hangen reminds parents that kids need two kinds of fiber. The first is insoluble fiber, like that found in leafy greens and wheat bran, which adds bulk to stool. The second is soluble fiber, like that found in oatmeal, beans, and citrus fruit, which makes stool soft. Here are some of Hangen's tricks to meet these goals:
- Space the healthy fiber foods throughout the day. Try tomatoes at breakfast, carrot sticks and dip for snack, hummus on whole-wheat pita for lunch. Don't load up kids' small tummies with fiber-heavy vegetables only at dinner time—it might give them stomach discomfort and turn them off of eating healthy foods in the future.
- Eat on the rainbow. By choosing fruits, veggies, and grains of different colors, you will ensure that your child gets both insoluble fiber and soluble fiber.
- Be sneaky! Try hiding wheat germ in cereal, adding granola to ice cream or yogurt, or slipping bran into pancakes, cookies, rice pilaf, hash browns, casseroles, meatballs, and macaroni and cheese.
- Think whole wheat. Switch to whole-wheat bread, or at least bread made with some whole-wheat flour. Use whole-wheat English muffins, pitas, tortillas, croutons, crackers, and pasta. Try breading chicken or fish in whole-wheat bread crumbs.
- Ease off on the juice. While it's true that fruit juices like prune, pear, and apple can help with hard stool, Hangen notes that it's easy to over-do, since juice is mostly sugar and contains no fiber. The best drink is water.
Practically speaking, young kids can be picky and difficult to feed. The best course of action is to keep offering fruits, veggies, and whole grains even if they are refused. Don't force your child to eat something, but also don't give up and resort only to unhealthy food without first offering healthy choices. Even picky children will often happily eat cut-up fruit, which can be beneficial.
As with anything, if you feel that something isn't right with your child's health, call the doctor. Rest assured, though, that most of the time constipation is short-lived and goes away with a few simple measures.