Mac ‘n’ cheese, string cheese, pizza with extra cheese, cheeseburgers — yes, your kid likely loves them all. But is all that cheese in your child’s diet too much of a good thing? Could it cause constipation?
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Cheese and other dairy foods are a good source of calcium and protein. But you may wonder if you should put limits on cheese in your child’s diet.
“When parents bring their child to see me because of constipation, we definitely talk about diet. However, diet is not the only factor,” says pediatric gastroenterologist Jacob Kurowski, MD.
What can cause constipation in children?
A constipation diagnosis typically means your child has hard stools that are difficult to pass that may also cause pain. Some children will have less than three bowel movements a week and others will pass small amounts frequently throughout the day.
Eating too much cheese, bananas, rice or milk all may contribute to the problem, Dr. Kurowski says. So can a diet low in fiber, water and other fluids.
“I don’t have a major beef with cheese in particular. It’s the culmination of the diet,” he says.
Other factors that also may play a role in causing constipation include stress, a child’s age and other behaviors.
“Children often become constipated because they hold in their stool,” Dr. Kurowski says.
They may do this for a variety of reasons, including:
- Embarrassment about using a public bathroom.
- Reluctance to stop playing to make a pit stop.
- Physical difficulties using a toilet.
The size, sounds and location of a toilet are sometimes overwhelming for young children, he says.
How can you ease your child’s constipation?
Make sure your child eats healthy, well-balanced meals. This is good for your child’s overall well-being in and out of the bathroom.
To do this:
- Reduce possible offenders. When Dr. Kurowski works with patients to address constipation, he starts by evaluating a child’s diet, asking what types of food and how much the child typically eats. Then he may suggest adjustments. For instance, if a child is eating more than 12 ounces of cheese daily, he might recommend reducing that to 4 or 5 ounces and limiting other milk products. “I often put in parameters. I very rarely tell parents to stop feeding kids something, including cheese. We preach moderation,” he says. “I have cheese sticks in my house for my children, and they drink milk.”
- Increase foods that can combat constipation. Dr. Kurowski recommends working in more foods that can help reduce the problem. He often suggests adding fiber-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits (especially apples with skins on), whole grains, legumes and beans.
- Consider stool softener in certain cases. Depending on how severe the constipation is, Dr. Kurowski might recommend a temporary over-the-counter stool softener to get a child’s bowels moving.
- Access support as needed. For children 3 to 8 years old, he may refer them to Cleveland Clinic’s Toileting Clinic. Parents and children attend weekly sessions for a month, and, in separate groups, learn ways to resolve toileting issues.
- Rule out other possible culprits. A review of medications and a check for health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome helps discover or rule out other possible causes of constipation.
Dr. Kurowski’s goal is to find a diet that works for the child, and to modify any behaviors or obstacles that might cause problems in the bathroom. Typically, he recommends stool softeners at the beginning of treatment with the goal of weaning off of them once diet and behavior has improved.
“If their feet don’t touch the ground when they sit on the toilet, they might need a stepping stool,” he says. “Toilets are built in size for adults, and not for kids.”
If you try adjusting your child’s diet, but constipation persists, see your doctor. A child might be more willing to open up about pooping and other sensitive subjects with a pediatrician trained to ask age-appropriate questions.
The ultimate goal is to make diet and/or behavior modifications so your child is an “effective pooper,” he says.