Bowel Problems (Diarrhea And Constipation) in Infants

Bowel problems may occur in infants and young children due to insufficient fiber content in the diet, gastroenteritis, digestive tract infections as well as infections elsewhere in the body, use of antibiotics, and certain disorders.

  • Constipation and diarrhea are the usual symptoms of bowel problems in infants and young children.
  • Treatment of bowel problems depends on the symptoms and the cause.
  • Constipation is treated by making changes in the diet, and by drug therapy, if necessary. Along with rehydration measures, antibiotics may be used to treat diarrhea.

The frequency and nature of bowel movements and the texture of stools may vary between infants. It usually depends on the diet, as well as the age, of the child. Infants taking formula milk may have darker and more solid feces, while breastfed babies normally have mustard-yellow, semisolid stools. Babies usually have more than one or two bowel movements a day, but very frequent, watery stools are never normal. If it lasts for more than 12 hours, the infant should be treated for diarrhea. It is not necessary that every infant should have daily bowel movements. More than the irregularity of bowel movements, it is the texture of the stool, and the difficulty in passing it, determines whether the child is having constipation.

Diarrhea in Infants: 

Diarrhea is characterized by very frequent bowel movements of loose, watery stool.

Diarrhea in infants and young children can be either acute or chronic. Suddenly appearing diarrhea, which lasts no more than a few days, is termed acute diarrhea. It is more often caused by viral gastroenteritis, and is usually accompanied vomiting and stomach cramps. In fact, an episode may begin with vomiting, which often stops in a day or two, while the diarrhea persists for a few more days. Gastrointestinal parasites, bacterial infection of the stomach or elsewhere in the body, and the use of certain antibiotics, are some of the other causes of acute diarrhea. Rapid dehydration due to loss of body fluids through frequent vomiting and watery stools can make acute diarrhea dangerous in infants and young children. The main focus of the treatment is replacement of the electrolytes and fluids lost. If the diarrhea does not resolve by itself within two to three days, antibiotic therapy may be started to clear up bacterial infections which may be causing the diarrhea. On the other hand, if the diarrhea is due to the use of antibiotics, doctor may stop the medication or substitute it with other suitable drugs.

Diarrhea lasting for prolonged periods, often several weeks to a few months, is termed chronic diarrhea. Allergies towards certain food items in the diet, and lactose intolerance, are the most common causes of chronic diarrhea in infants. Gastrointestinal parasites, as well as malnutrition, can be the cause of chronic childhood diarrhea in underdeveloped countries. Children who have certain disorders such as cystic fibrosis or celiac disease may suffer from chronic diarrhea.

Constipation in Infants: 

Constipation is characterized by hard stools passed infrequently and with difficulty.

Irregular bowel movements alone are not considered as constipation as it is normal for some infants and children to pass stools only once in three or four days. When the stool is not passed for more than 5 days, it may become very hard and bowel movements may become painful and strained. Passage of hard stools may bruise and cut the anal canal, resulting in blood-stained stools.

Dehydration and lack of fiber in the food are the usual causes of constipation in infants. Changes in the diet or feeding pattern also may cause constipation. Certain congenital abnormalities and deficiencies in the infant may be responsible for constipation in some cases. Hirschsprung’s disease, characterized by lack of movement in the large intestines due to a nerve defect, often causes constipation. Hypothyroidism, abnormalities in the potassium and calcium levels, and the use of certain drugs such as opioids, anticholinergic medication, and antihistamines, also may result in constipation.

Constipation is treated differently according to the infant’s age. Very young infants, especially those under two months old and are feeding well, may be given light corn syrup to relieve constipation. One teaspoon of the syrup can be mixed with morning and evening feeds. Those older than two months can be given apple juice or prune juice to drink. Infants older than 4 months can have mashed and strained prunes, apricots, and plums, which would add extra fiber to their diet and relieve constipation. High-fiber cereal preparations also may help. Children one year old and above, will benefit from fiber-rich foods in their regular diet. Cooked spinach, beans, and peas are good sources of fiber. So are fresh fruits and whole grain crackers and cereals.

Infants and young children should not be given enema, suppository or over-the-counter laxatives, unless prescribed by a doctor. If the constipation is severe, the doctor may treat the child with drugs. Specific disorders which may cause constipation are treated accordingly. Those who have thyroid deficiency may be treated with thyroid hormones. Children with low calcium levels can take supplemental calcium to make up. A child with Hirschsprung’s disease may need surgery.

Watch this Advice About Infant Diarrhea & Vomiting :

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Yasser Elnahas

MD, PHD, Professor Of CardioVascular Surgery
Dr. Yasser Elnahas, Is an associate Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery. Dr. Elnahas was trained as a fellow At Texas Heart Institute And Mayo Clinic Foundation.Dr. Elnahas is dedicated to educating the general public about different disease conditions and simplifying the medical knowledge in an easy to understand terminology.

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