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The Truth About Constipation

You know the signs: Your baby grunts and squirms while trying to produce a bowel movement, or simply doesn't at all -- for days. This has to mean that the poor little guy's constipated, right? Not necessarily, say experts. While you can expect to change an average of two to four messy diapers a day before your baby's first birthday, some babies can go several days or longer between stools. Even some straining during a bowel movement can be considered normal, especially if you have recently introduced solid foods to your child's diet.

"Most of the time the problem is not constipation -- it's the parent's perception," says Mary Mikhailov, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Babies will not have the same bowel movements every day. It's an evolving pattern."

If your baby produces stool that is hard, however, or if he seems to be in a lot of pain while defecating, constipation could be the cause. It can be triggered when you switch your breastfed baby to formula, change from milk-based formula to soy, or introduce table food. Milk allergy, changes in routine, or stressful events are other culprits.

Constipation is rarely a serious condition, but it should not be ignored. "If acute constipation isn't treated quickly, the condition can become chronic, even at a young age," says Joseph Croffie, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

What many parents may not know is that when a baby's face reddens and he stiffens his whole body during a bowel movement -- he may be holding back. "Often infants remember pain from an earlier episode. This is how constipation becomes a cycle," says Dr. Croffie.

Fortunately, it's easy to take action. Treat your child's constipation by giving your child a tablespoon or two of a mixture that is half water and half fruit juice, such as prune, pear, or apple juices. If this doesn't help, experts suggest adding small amounts of barley malt extract or corn syrup to your baby's food or drink. Your pediatrician can recommend the best dosage, and also work with you to monitor results.

Consult your doctor immediately if your baby's constipation is accompanied by stomach distention, poor appetite, failure to gain weight, vomiting, or blood in the stool. This could be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as a birth defect of the large intestine, which would require additional treatment.