Let’s Talk About Poop

Little boy with stomach ache

Let’s talk about poop!

Poop issues are extremely common.  Constipation issues result in about 2.5 million doctor visits and 500 million dollars spent on laxatives each year!!  So even though you may not want to talk about it, it is most definitely on lots of people’s minds.

So what exactly is constipation?  Constipation is when you are not passing poop regularly, resulting in hard, dry, and often painful poops.  Sometimes this happens in a way that makes sense to us… we go out-of-town, eat too much cheese, or drink too much milk.  Other times (and probably more often), it happens very gradually.  There are many things that can make you more likely to become constipated.

HOLDING

Sometimes we ignore the urge to poop and try to wait until a time that is more convenient to go.  After all, finishing just one more chapter or completing just one more level of the game can’t hurt…   If you happen to wait too long to use the bathroom once or twice, it is not that big of a deal.  But if it happens frequently, you can gradually lose the urge to go.

Our large intestine’s main job is to absorb water.  More time in the colon equals more water sucked out of the poop.  So the longer you hold it, the harder the poop gets.  Harder poop is harder to push out.  If it hurts to push out the poop we try to wait even longer to go.  It’s a vicious cycle.

One of the problems with continuously holding your stools is that the large intestine gets very stretched out.  You can think of it like a balloon.  If you blow up a balloon, it has to stretch to hold the extra air.  When you let out the air, the balloon is all loose and floppy.

The same thing happens with our intestines.  If we get constipated and make a regular habit of holding, our intestine walls will stretch out to hold the extra poop.  If you empty the gut of all poop, the intestines will be empty.  But the intestine walls will still be loose and stretched out.  Stretched out intestines do not squeeze quite as nicely as normal intestines.  Lucky for all of us, our stretched out guts WILL eventually go back to normal size.  But this takes quite some time… in many cases, 6 months to 2 years.

Potty Training

Toddler working on potty training

Toddlers who are starting to potty train can be experts at holding stool.  After all, they’ve just started getting practice having control over their bodily functions… The power totally goes to their heads!   In most cases, they also know if they say they have to poop we will make them stop playing with their awesome toys and go poop.

School Worries

As kids start school and get a bit older, it is natural to become a little more self-conscious.  Many children hold their stools at school because they don’t want their peers to hear or smell them.  Many don’t want to be the last kid back in line after the entire class goes to use the restroom.  Sometimes, they just don’t have enough time between changing classes to use the restroom and get to class on time.  And NO ONE wants to explain in front of the class why they were tardy..

NOT ENOUGH WATER

The human body is about 80-85% water.  We need to consume a good bit of water to maintain all of our healthy bodily functions.  If we do not put enough water into our bodies, our gut will do its best to absorb as much as it can from our food.  In general, you need to aim for half of your body weight in ounces of water per day.  So a 100 pound person needs to aim for 50 ounces of water per day.  Unfortunately, 3 cups of coffee in the morning do not count towards this minimum. Aim for your goal water each day and anything after that is bonus.

The exception to this rule is infants under a year old.  In babies who are drinking formula or breast milk, their water is in their milk.  Unless specifically directed by your pediatrician, you should not offer water to children younger than 6 months of age as their kidneys are not mature enough to handle it.  Excessive water intake at this age (either by giving water or giving diluted formula) can lead to seizures.

NOT ENOUGH FIBER

This is the biggie!!  The typical American diet does not give us nearly enough fiber per day to ensure healthy poops.  A normal adult needs between 25-38 grams of fiber per day.  A toddler needs around 15 grams per day.  By teen years, you should aim for closer to 25 grams per day.

Fiber is important in helping us feel full after eating a meal.  Healthy fiber intake decreases your risk of diabetes and heart disease.  It also helps keep cholesterol levels down.  As we age, good fiber intake may be protective against diverticulitis.  But most important for our purposes here, keeping a diet high in fiber keeps stools soft and bulky and easier to pass.

The best way to get fiber in your diet is to make sure you are getting plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal.  The typical American diet is extremely low in fiber.  In fact, some report that less than 5% of our population consumes the recommended amount of fiber on a regular basis.  Many of the foods that we love to snack on (chips, crackers, cookies, sodas) have virtually no fiber.  If given a choice, most of our kiddos (and probably us too, haha) would pick French fries, rice, breads, and pasta over healthier fiber containing vegetables.

You CAN Do It!

It may seem like an insurmountable hurdle, but we can make changes in our family’s diet that put our children on a path of better health.  Start by making simple changes as a family unit.  After all, our children learn so much by modeling our behaviors.  So as a family, try to add new fruits and veggies to each meal.  Limit the starchy sides (rice, pasta, bread).  Encourage your littles to help pick a veggie to try to help prepare it.  Experiment with different recipes.  You may be surprised to find some new favorites.

If you are still not able to get enough fiber into the diet, there are several different over the counter preparations that you can add in.  There are powders that you can add into foods and drinks, gummy supplements, and even cookies.  Eventually, if you keep trying, you will get enough fiber thru the added fruits and veggies.  But even small changes take time, especially when there is resistance from one or more family members.

Diet Changes are Hard

Making healthy changes to your diet can be hard.  Usually we get to where we are because it’s fast or easy.  Life with kiddos can be very chaotic.  But try to remember that what we get our kids used to now will be the habits that they fall back on with their kids once they’re grown.  Making changes now will not only benefit you, but your kids and future grandkids as well.  This is a great investment in the future health of your family!

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Author: Dr. Jenny Seawell

Dr. Jennifer Seawell is a board certified pediatrician currently practicing in Tennessee. She is married with 2 daughters aged 7 and 13.

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