The National Institutes of Health reports that constipation in children is a common occurrence. While this condition is typically not life-threatening, it can certainly affect a child’s quality of life.
Constipation is characterized by bowel movements that occur less frequently than usual or stools that tend to be hard, dry, and difficult and painful to pass. The following are common causes of constipation in children:
• Milk allergy: According to a 1998 report featured in The New England Journal of Medicine, approximately 70 percent of cases of childhood constipation end by eliminating cow’s milk from the diet and substituting soy or rice milk.
• Lack of fiber: Just as with adults, a high-fiber diet is important for intestinal health.
• Certain medications or drugs, such as antacids, opiates and antidepressants.
• Various diseases and anatomic abnormalities like diabetes, kidney disease, hypothyroidism, pituitary disorders or low potassium levels.
• Stool withholding: Children may not defecate because they are stressed about potty training, are embarrassed to use a public bathroom, don’t want to interrupt playtime or are fearful of having a painful or unpleasant bowel movement.
Before you reach for that over-the-counter laxative, consider adding a probiotic supplement to your child’s daily routine.
Probiotics for children
There is some preliminary evidence that probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, are useful in cases of childhood constipation. It makes sense. After all, bacteria constitute about 30 percent or more of the typical stool weight. In addition, these beneficial bacteria enhance overall digestive health.
Rather than using a single strain of probiotic bacteria, it’s best to use a multi-strain formula composed of highly viable and compatible strains such as Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium infantis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus lactis, Lactobacillus fermentum or Lactobacillus rhamnosus. There are multiple strains of bacteria in our bodies, so it’s important to supplement with a multi-strain formula. A good probiotic supplement will list the strains it includes on the label.
Keep in mind that much of the scientific research on probiotics involves the analysis of single strains because it’s easier to evaluate the effectiveness of one strain versus multiple strains. One of the most commonly studied strains of bacteria is Bifidobacterium breve.
A 2011 pilot study featured in Nutrition Journal that involved 20 children (average age of 7.4 years) with constipation demonstrated that daily doses of a probiotic supplement (100 million to 1 billion colony-forming units of Bifidobacterium breve) for four weeks significantly increased the frequency of bowel movements. Children who began the study with an average of less than one bowel movement per week improved to an average of about five per week after four weeks.
The children also had increased stool consistency and a significant decrease in fecal incontinence—from nine incidents per week at the beginning of the study to 1.5 in week four. In addition, there was a significant decrease in the number of abdominal pain episodes—4.2 at the beginning of the study to 1.9 in week four.
Previous clinical studies have shown that even newborn infants can safely take probiotics at a daily dosage of up to 9 billion bacteria.
The positive scientific research regarding probiotics and childhood constipation gives parents a more natural way to help ease this uncomfortable condition.