Constipation can be painful for babies and stressful for caregivers. Some babies with constipation may cry or have trouble sleeping. It is best to seek medical advice if constipation lasts a long time or a baby is in intense pain.

A baby may have constipation if they have fewer bowel movements than usual or than is typical for their age. Their bowel movements may be hard or dry.

It is possible that a young baby who seems to have constipation is not getting enough food. This is especially true when a person is nursing, which can make it difficult to measure how much the baby is eating. Some signs they may not be getting enough food include if a baby seems fussy after eating, is not gaining weight, or constantly wants to feed.

Most cases of constipation in babies are not due to a serious underlying medical condition and are not dangerous.

Read on to learn more about baby constipation and when it might be necessary to contact a doctor.

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The typical number of bowel movements per day or week varies greatly from baby to baby.

However, infants who are nursing generally have an average of 3 bowel movements daily during the first 3 months of life. Infants who consume formula have slightly fewer, with an average of 2 bowel movements per day.

Having fewer than two bowel movements per week is often a sign of constipation in babies, though some may have symptoms even with more frequent bowel movements.

Other symptoms include:

  • painful bowel movements, which may cause the baby to cry
  • very hard or dry stools
  • stools that look incomplete or very small, like pellets
  • a sudden change in the baby’s bowel habits

It is best to call a doctor in the following circumstances:

  • A baby does not seem to be getting enough food or is losing weight.
  • A baby does not pass their first stool within 24–48 hours of birth.
  • A person who is nursing is having difficulty producing enough breast milk.
  • A baby begins vomiting and cannot keep down any fluid or food.
  • A baby shows signs of dehydration, such as being lethargic or having frequent dry diapers.
  • A baby has blood in their stool, a fever, or a bloated tummy.
  • Constipation does not resolve within a few days of receiving home treatment.
  • A baby with a known medical condition experiences constipation.
  • A baby has any other symptoms along with constipation.
  • A baby has decreased wet diapers.

If a baby has sudden changes in their movement or reflexes, experts recommend a parent or caregiver take them to the emergency room. Dehydration can also be an emergency.

The following strategies may help treat constipation at home:

  • Gently massage the baby’s belly in a clockwise direction or lie them on their back and move their feet in a cycling motion.
  • Place a warm washcloth on the baby’s stomach or give them a warm bath.
  • Feed the baby more frequently whenever they show interest. Young babies need to eat at least 8–12 times per 24-hour period, including at night.
  • Check to ensure the baby’s formula is properly mixed.
  • Encourage the baby to move.
  • Avoid making sudden dietary changes.

Parents or caregivers should avoid giving babies laxatives or other medications without speaking with a doctor. Experts also advise against giving water, juice, or fluids other than breast milk or formula to babies who have not yet had solids without talking with a doctor.

However, if the baby is more than 6 months old and already eating baby food, increasing the amount of vegetables, fruit, or high fiber cereals they eat may be beneficial.

Most cases of constipation in babies are functional. This means that a serious underlying medical condition does not cause it. Instead, something in the baby’s environment or lifestyle is the trigger.

As this article explains above, if a baby has very few bowel movements and their diaper is usually dry, it could mean they are not getting enough food, especially if they are a newborn. This may occur due to issues with latching, breast milk supply, or the frequency of nursing.

Some other common causes of functional constipation include:

  • Introducing new foods: Changes in formula type, changes to the diet of a nursing parent, or the introduction of solids may trigger constipation. Introducing solids before a baby is 4 months old is more likely to cause constipation. It is best to consult a doctor before making any dietary changes.
  • Vomiting or illness: Vomiting and diarrhea can cause dehydration and trigger constipation. A sick baby who stops having bowel movements may be at risk of dehydration.
  • Medications: Introducing a new medication may slow digestion.

Underlying conditions

Less commonly, underlying illnesses may cause constipation, especially conditions present at birth. These include:

  • Hirschsprung disease: This condition is the most common cause of constipation present at birth or soon after. It causes problems with the nerves of the lower intestine, affecting bowel movements.
  • Spina bifida: Spina bifida can affect the ability to have bowel movements on a typical schedule.
  • Metabolic conditions: Medical conditions that affect metabolism may cause constipation. Examples include hypothyroidism and hypercalcemia.
  • Atypical formation of the anus or rectum: Atypical formations in the parts of the body involved in bowel movements may cause constipation. These are usually present at birth. However, injuries can sometimes cause them.

In most cases where a baby has an underlying condition causing constipation, symptoms will be present at birth.

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Babies can develop constipation for various reasons. It can cause them to experience pain and be stressful for caregivers. If the baby has an underlying medical condition, it may be necessary to treat this to manage constipation. However, parents can often manage a baby’s constipation at home.

Constipation is not usually dangerous and often resolves on its own. It can be helpful for parents to monitor the specific circumstances under which their baby develops constipation. For example, nursing babies may experience it in response to certain foods in the diet of the person nursing them.

If constipation lasts for a long time or if a baby is in intense pain, it is best to seek medical advice.