14 Natural Relief Strategies for Childhood Constipation
Constipation in kids seems so common it has become “normal.” But there is nothing normal about being backed up. Sleeping, eating, and pooping are what I call The Foundational Trifecta for Resilient Health. As much as eating and sleeping must be optimized, constipation must be relieved if your child is to enjoy optimal health. And let’s be honest—everyone feels better after a good poop!
Healthy ways to get the bowels moving
The strategy that works for your child's constipation is going to depend on the cause of the constipation. Pick one or two of these as a starting point and give them a few weeks to do their work. You can combine these strategies and you may find you need to play around with a few before finding the ones that work best for your child’s particular situation.
Magnesium brings water into the colon and relaxes the muscles in the digestive lining. Adding magnesium-rich foods like avocado, black beans, and salmon can help, but giving a supplement is often a better solution for quick relief. The oxide form of magnesium will flush the colon most rapidly but should only be used short-term as it is poorly absorbed and its laxative effect can lead to mineral deficiencies. Magnesium citrate and glycinate work as well and are better-absorbed by the body. Start with a low dose, given several times a day, and increase the amount until stools soften. Once the bowel is clear, reduce the supplementation.
Zinc helps digestive enzymes break apart proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and aids in the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach—a deficiency of acid or enzymes could be rendering digestive function inadequate and contributing to constipation. Liquid zinc is easy to give to children and is highly absorbable. Be mindful that high doses of zinc can interfere with nutrient balance, so you’ll want to consult with a practitioner if giving beyond 15 mg a day or if your child is younger than five.
Vitamin C stimulates the production of stomach acid. It’s best to give this as a supplement in the morning as it can raise energy levels and interfere with sleep. Start with a low dose and increase until stool softens.
Bacteria are digestive regulators – they can help with constipation and diarrhea. There is, at this point, no toxic upper limit for probiotics. However, if your child experiences mood, digestive, or skin reactions to a probiotic, cut back. Choose one that has multiple strains and no fillers. Dose can range from 11 million to 50 billion CFUs; try to work up to twenty billion CFUs per day, as there may be an adjustment period with bowel frequency. Stubborn cases may require more, so at that point, consult with a practitioner. Fermented food can also be a great source of probiotic bacteria.
This herb eases constipation and soothes irritated mucous membranes. It is both mucilaginous when combined with water and high in nourishing antioxidants, often working well in conjunction with magnesium. You can buy it as a powder and mix it into applesauce, starting with a teaspoon per day.
Get moving and encourage play! This not only moves the bowels but has the added benefit of reducing anxiety and stress hormones for many kids.
A school-aged child should drink one to two litres of water throughout the day and a constipated child might need even more because the longer stool sits in the colon the more water is absorbed from it and the harder it is to pass. You may add an electrolyte powder or make your own natural electrolyte drinks to facilitate hydration as well.
Healthy fats and fibre
Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and seeds like chia bulk up the stool and keep bowels moving. Keep in mind, too much can cause irritation and plug things up further, so don’t go overboard. Start by aiming for 10 grams a day and slowly move up to 25 grams or higher, making sure to pair this with adequate hydration. Healthy fats from fish, meat, avocado, seeds, coconut, olives, or full-fat yogurt lubricate the bowel and nourish the gut lining. Coconut oil is a particularly helpful fat because it doesn’t require bile for digestion like most fats do, and constipation is sometimes related to poor bile flow. Ghee and olive oil are also beneficial additions.
This neurotransmitter is involved in motility and fluid control of the bowels. Serve foods like eggs, salmon, turkey, and nuts, which are high in tryptophan, an amino acid used to make serotonin. B6, folate, and zinc are also needed to convert that tryptophan into serotonin, so include pumpkin seed butter, shellfish, leafy greens, beef, beets, and broccoli.
Castor oil packs and belly rubs
These can bring blood flow to the digestive system and support liver function, both of which can result in constipation relief. Start by rubbing the oil clockwise around the belly button several times a day with your fingers, pressing as deeply as you can without causing discomfort. For an enhanced treatment, make a castor oil “pack”, placing it on your child’s abdomen and a little to the right so it covers the liver.
An osteopath or chiropractor can help by adjusting the position of soft tissues, reducing fluid congestion, bringing balance to the nervous system, and improving blood flow to smooth and skeletal muscle tissue.
Sucralose and chlorine, emulsifiers like polysorbate 80, and environmental pollutants like glyphosate have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome, cause low-grade inflammation, and deplete the body’s nutrient stores, all of which can contribute to constipation. Use HEPA air and water filters in the home, purchase the cleanest whole food you can afford, and read food labels carefully.
Let up on laxatives
Approach any laxative containing polyethylene glycol 3350 (PEG) with extreme caution and consider it a short-term, last-resort strategy only. Be sure to get all the information you can from your doctor first.
Parents Against MiraLAX
In 2012 the FDA was petitioned to further investigate the safety of PEG for use in children after growing concern over a lack of safety data (especially in long-term use and with children under age 17) and increasing reports of possible neuropsychiatric side effects like depression, rage, anxiety, paranoia, tics, seizures, OCD, and mood swings. The study was approved in 2014 and was supposed to be done by 2018. By the end of 2018, 1,115 reports of "psychiatric disorders" related to PEG had been reported to the FDA. Over 30,000 concerned parents have gathered in the “Parents Against MiraLAX” Facebook group and continue to voice their concerns about neuropsychiatric side effects of polyethylene glycol 3350. The promised safety study has not yet been completed.
Reduce stress and anxiety
Start with mindfulness. Allow sufficient time for meals and find ways to make the environment more conducive to digestion. Taking a pause before digging-in to breathe or talk, using calm music, essential oils, and arranging for restful activities post-meal, can all help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and release the “rest, digest, and grow” hormones. If you think stress or anxiety is a player in your child’s constipation, work with a practitioner and explore the use of amino acids like GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) and nutrients like zinc and B6 which have been known to help calm the anxious mind.
Digestive issues like constipation (along with its trifecta friends) are important to work through so your child can enjoy resilient health and function their best. If none of these suggestions work, seek help to assess for undiagnosed food sensitivities and underlying medical conditions which might be slowing down digestive function.