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Your Baby's Digestive Health

New parents are often worried about the contents of their baby's diaper and whether or not she's keeping her food down. While all babies will spit up or produce a strange-looking stool from time to time, in most cases it's nothing to be concerned about. But some symptoms can indicate trouble. Here's the scoop on common digestive problems your child may encounter and what you can do about it.

The emptying of baby's stomach isn't yet coordinated. Sometimes it takes weeks for the normal squeezing pattern of the stomach to get into rhythm. Until that happens, milk can sit in her stomach longer than normal and then come back up. This is called reflux.

Most cases of reflux disappear once baby is between 4 and 12 months old. However, the following symptoms may indicate that your child is having problems:

  • Poor feeding: Reflux can cause burning and irritation of the esophagus (also called heartburn) which makes a baby lose her appetite and act irritable. Babies with these symptoms will often arch and pull off the nipple soon after starting a feeding.
  • Frequent hiccups: It's normal for all babies to hiccup, but infants with reflux do it a lot. This is caused by the extra air in his stomach and by the spasms of his esophagus irritated by refluxed stomach acid.
  • Congestion and breathing problems: Chronic acid reflux can irritate the upper airways, causing baby to cough, wheeze, and be congested. These symptoms tend to worsen at night, when baby lies flat.

If your baby shows any of the above symptoms, her pediatrician may recommend treating her with medication. Otherwise, you can greatly help matters by burping baby often (after every ounce of formula or after every couple of minutes of breastfeeding) and keeping her upright for 20 minutes after each feeding.

The most common cause of vomiting in babies is an infection of the intestinal tract by any virus that happens to be going around. The illness usually starts with a sudden bout of vomiting, often with fever or diarrhea (not necessarily in that order). Most infections run their course in two or three days, although a child's tummy often isn't up to snuff for days after.

The biggest risk involved with these viruses is dehydration. Red flags that your baby is getting dehydrated are a drop-off in the normal number of wet diapers and a shortage of saliva. If your baby won't take -- or can't keep down -- breast milk or formula, offer her a tablespoonful of an electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte or Rehydralyte every 15 minutes or so. Call your pediatrician if she's vomiting up the solution.

In rare instances, vomiting in infancy can indicate that baby was born with, or has developed, a malformation of the digestive tract. One common condition is called pyloric stenosis, which occurs when the muscle at the exit of the stomach thickens, preventing milk from passing through it. No one knows what causes it, but it usually shows up in babies between 3 and 5 weeks of age. The telltale sign of pyloric stenosis is projectile vomiting -- vomiting that's forceful enough to shoot across the room. If your baby is diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, usually by an ultrasound, he'll need an operation to open the blockage at the outlet of his stomach.

Another big concern for parents is diarrhea. Defining exactly what constitutes diarrhea is tricky; it's probably best to think of it as a bowel movement that's significantly more frequent and watery than usual.

Diarrhea in babies is usually caused by a virus. One type, rotavirus, is responsible for most cases of diarrhea in kids. Rotavirus usually shows up during the winter in kids between 6 and 24 months. Once rotavirus takes hold, the only thing you can do is make sure baby stays hydrated. Your pediatrician would need to perform a test on baby's stool in order to make a definite diagnosis.

If your baby has diarrhea that just won't go away for more than two to three weeks and she lacks fever or cold symptoms, she could have a milk allergy. In addition to watery stools, allergic babies may be colicky, suffer from cramping when they have bowel movements, have small amounts of blood and mucus in their stool, and develop a rash. Most allergic babies get better once put on a hypoallergenic formula such as Nutramigen or Alimentum.

Constipation -- or hard stool -- is a common problem, especially after a baby starts eating cereals. If you notice that your child's stools are firm and dry, or he's having difficulty passing them, try cutting out rice cereal for a day or two to see if that does the trick.

Another common time for babies to develop constipation is around their first birthday. It's no coincidence that this is also when most parents start children on whole milk. Too much milk can lead to sticky, claylike stools that present a real problem for some toddlers. If you suspect milk is the culprit, try limiting your child's intake to 16 ounces per day.

Once your baby starts solid food, you'll notice all sorts of changes in his stool. While this may seem alarming, it's entirely normal. Watch for the following differences in your baby's diaper:

  • Frequency: Your baby's pooping pattern can change temporarily the first time you give him certain foods. For example, bananas and rice cereal cause fewer stools in some babies, and fruit can cause an increase in dirty diapers.
  • Odor: Stool gets its foul odor from the bacteria that live and grow in the colon and make up the bulk of a baby's stool. As new sugars make their way into the colon, different types of bacteria grow and prosper. The result can be an unpleasant odor.
  • Color: Your baby's stool may turn funny colors depending on what he eats. Carrots and squash can appear yellow in the diaper. Artificially colored juices can create a scary resemblance to blood, and dark green veggies are notorious for causing very dark stools. With few exceptions, these changes are nothing to worry about. But if you notice black or red stools that you can't connect to any food, tell your pediatrician.
  • Consistency: The consistency of your baby's stool will change depending on what he eats. They can range from hard or firm to loose and slimy. But look out for watery stools that soak into the diaper, which may mean your baby is sick or has a food allergy. Also, although you may see mucus in his stool when he eats certain fruits, like bananas, lots of it can indicate an irritated colon, also pointing to a food reaction.

Originally published on AmericanBaby.com.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.