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The Scoop on Poop

Motherhood is not for the squeamish.

That must be why prospective mothers must endure 40 weeks of bizarre physical changes culminating in a veritable riot of bodily fluids in the delivery room: Pregnancy is a crash course designed to prepare us for Nature’s most proficient and abundant producer of biological emissions … a baby.

We’re talking about poop here. And just as parents are mesmerized by every aspect of their child’s being, they are likewise fascinated with the contents of Baby’s diapers. Every mother on Earth has at some time or another noted the color, consistency, frequency, or other characteristic of her child’s stools. We can’t help it. We’re oddly compelled to do it. Poop tells us how our children are feeling, if they are eating enough fiber or too much fruit. It indicates illness and frequently explains a child’s temperament on a particular day; so if you’ve ever wondered if your running mental inventory of your child’s bowels is normal, rest assured that it certainly is.

But there are times when a particularly odd diaper change confounds us and we’re too embarrassed to ask what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to ask your mother, pediatrician, or a good friend because chances are that they’ve seen it all before and will help guide you toward the appropriate response. (And if you think asking a single question about the Ol’ Number Two is slightly uncomfortable, try writing an article about it!)

Baby’s First Bowels

New parents are sometimes surprised when their precious bundle produces a thick, gooey, black or green poop in the first few days of life. Pediatrician Dr. Kris Rehm, MD, of Old Harding Pediatric Group in Nashville, Tennessee, says, “They are made up of meconium, the substance in an infant’s intestines while he is in utero. It must be passed before normal digestion and the first regular stool can be passed.”

The term “regular stool” is a bit of an oxymoron since baby poop covers a wide range of colors and frequencies. Most breastfed babies produce a runny yellow-orange stool, often containing what appear to be tiny seeds, while bottle-fed infants have firmer, somewhat darker BMs. Young babies can make up to ten dirty diapers a day, while others have as few as two or three.

Dr. Rehm says, “By two months of age, it’s not uncommon for a breastfed baby to go a few days betweens stools—some [go] only once a week. This is because breast milk leaves very little solid waste behind.” However if a formula, bottle-fed baby goes less than once a day, it may indicate constipation.

Starting Solids

When you recover from the shock of the consistency and frequency of your newborn’s movements, you’ll be floored all over again when your darling begins eating her first foods—strained carrots, creamed peas, and pureed blueberries—thus giving you your first experience with pumpkin orange, army green, or neon blue poo-poo. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, your older toddler will produce a violent purple poop after digesting grape Jello, grape Kool-Aid, or anything else injected with large amounts of food coloring.

Solid food means solid waste and most likely firmer, less frequent bowel movements. Since little ones aren’t the most adept chewers, it’s common to see bits of food in a dirty diaper—even entire beans or chunks of fruit. Other household items like pennies, diamond earrings, and Barbie shoes have been known to make their way into dirty diapers too!

When Trouble Arises

One of the main reasons parents perform poop checks is for a quick health assessment. Diarrhea and constipation often indicate a problem, but both ailments are often easily remedied.

“Diarrhea can be caused by a number of things, depending on your child’s age,” Dr. Rehm says. “Some breastfed babies may appear to have diarrhea when they are just having normal, breastfed poop. The same thing happens often to toddlers who develop diarrhea—which most often is a result of their diet.”

Since toddlers are notorious for eating one kind of food for days at a time, maintaining a well-balanced diet can be challenging. But if your two-year-old suddenly develops runny stools and isn’t sick, try cutting down on greasy foods—like chicken nuggets, chips, and French fries—as well as fruit and fruit juices. Both cause diarrhea if they’re not balanced out by appropriate amounts of whole grains and fiber.

“Following these two causes, the most likely additional cause is viral. The most important thing to watch [for] when your child has diarrhea are signs of dehydration,” such as less than normal urine output, dry lips, and listlessness, Dr. Rehm explains. “If you are worried that your child is having less urine output than normal, it’s important to discuss this with your pediatrician.”

As tempting as it may be to try to stop the diarrhea with over-the-counter medicines like Imodium and Pepto-Bismol, doctors don’t recommend it. Your child’s body is ridding itself of the virus through the bowels, so you need to allow things to run their course.

Painful diaper rash is one of the unfortunate side effects of diarrhea. Oatmeal baths to dry out the rash, frequent diaper changes, plenty of diaper cream, and lots of fresh air on a bare bottom are the best ways to clear up the problem.

Keep in mind that the viruses that cause diarrhea are extremely contagious. Wash your hands and your child’s hands thoroughly after every diaper change, sanitize changing tables with Lysol, and bathe siblings separately since kids often ingest drops (or gallons) of bath water, and it only takes a microscopic amount of contaminated fecal matter to make someone else sick.

On the other end of the spectrum, kids will sometimes suffer from constipation. While this uncomfortable condition can be caused by illness and is sometimes brought on by fear of using the toilet during potty training, it’s most frequently the result of a child’s diet. Therefore the most natural cure is a dietary change. Dr. Rehm suggests, “Increasing fluids, particularly after your infant is over four- to six-months-old will help. In a younger baby, you may add Karo syrup or mineral oil, or potentially a few ounces of juice.” But she urges parents to discuss any constipation treatments with a pediatrician, especially the use of suppositories or laxatives, which could do more harm than good in a small child.

Blood in a child’s stool is enough to give a mother fits, but it’s usually caused by a large, hard bowel movement that creates a small tear in a baby’s bottom. If your child is constipated and you notice a small bloody streak once or twice, it will probably clear up when things return to their normal consistency. But Dr. Rehm says, “If there are large amounts of blood or mucous then I would encourage you to call your pediatrician.”

It’s OK to Look

Admit it—poop is funny. It looks funny, smells funny, and has been the butt of jokes (pun intended!) since cavemen started grunting punch lines. But for all its strange, humorous, and gross qualities, it has also historically been a cheap, reliable method to determine a person’s general health. A mother’s compulsion to notice and even discuss her baby’s bowel movements is as natural and healthy as … well … as using the bathroom.

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