Toddlers and young children get constipated just like the rest of us. Lots of things can lead to constipation in young children, from fast-paced modern schedules to anxiety, but the most common culprit is a diet lacking in fiber. Here are guidelines to make sure your toddler or young child is getting the proper nutrition to make healthy, regular poos.
As with most nutritional conflicts, cut back on junk food, refined sugars and starches, and fried foods. Also, cut back on dairy. Cheese is a child favorite and they often overdo it when they have free access (or once they figure out where you store the Kraft singles in the fridge). Only cut back on the dairy if you think your child is constipated and then return to healthy servings when the problem is solved.
Fiber, which is basically the portion of the food we eat that the body can’t digest, serves to push all of the gunk out of our systems. Fiber not only helps your toddler’s digestive tract work better at pushing out the stool, it actually makes going to the bathroom more comfortable. Softer stools are virtually painless and make a toddler’s bathroom experiences less scary.
Fiber is either soluble, such as the fiber fond in oats, berries and broccoli, which draws in water present in your digestive tract to soften the stools, or fiber is insoluble to make the stools bigger and more regular. Insoluble fiber is the “roughage” found in whole grains, celery, fruit skins, and bran.
So how much fiber does your toddler or young child need to avoid constipation and stay healthy? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers between two and three years old need about 19 rams of fiber, children between four and eight years old need about 25 grams of fiber, and children up to age 11 need about 30 grams of fiber.
What does that mean for your toddler’s diet? Well, according to the Pediatric Nutrition Handbook (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009) an apple with the skin has about three grams of fiber. White bread has less than one gram while peanuts have a whopping 12 grams of fiber.
As the parent, you control your child’s diet. Toddlers and young children do develop likes and dislikes as far as taste, but you should not allow them to dictate what they will and will not eat. It is your responsibility to provide healthy, fiber-rich alternatives for your child’s meals. Swapping out their white bread toast for whole-wheat toast is a simple way to increase the fiber in your child’s diet. Other sneaky but effective ideas include:
Adding whole grain and fiber-rich toppings, like Grape Nuts cereal, nuts or granola to yogurt or ice cream.
Switching to whole wheat flour instead of refined white flour for baking and cooking.
Leave the skins on fruits like pears and apples for snacks.
Toss in a spoonful of bran each serving of meaty spaghetti sauce or meatloaf. Allow for fewer thickening agents to make up in the recipe and your child will never know the difference.
Switching a toddler from a favorite cereal to granola will probably not happen. But throwing in a few raisins, nuts and chopped fruit to their beloved kid’s cereal makes a big difference.
Add flaxseed to recipes like instant oatmeal and soups. Flaxseed, especially ground, is barely noticeable.
You may not have time to cook from scratch, but you can add to instant foods. Pour a can of chicken noodle soup in a pot and heat with added vegetables, like mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, or corn.
Switch out whole-wheat pastas for the colon-clogging, enriched-flour based macaronis and spaghettis.
Remember, when purchasing fiber rich groceries, not everything that says “wheat” or “whole-grain” is really nutritious. (I know – hard to imagine food companies would take advantage of nutrition to make more money, right?) Always read the labels. Ingredients are listed in order of their overall percentage in the product, so the first ingredient listed is the one there is more of in that food. If a loaf of “wheat” bread or pasta lists enriched flour first, then it’s basically white bread dyed brown. Look for top ingredients like “ground wheat flour” and other whole grains for the best fiber band for your calories and dollar.
Another bonus, besides relief of constipation and better health, is the impact this will have on your child’s long term understand of nutrition. Toddler’s usually like what is familiar to them. If they only eat white bread and French fries, they will learn these foods to be comfort foods later in life. By introducing your child to whole grains, fresh vegetables and fiber rich fruits instead of processed snacks and refined flours and sugars early on, your child will develop a much healthier natural taste.