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Color Changes in Your Baby's Bowel Movements

If you're a new parent, you probably have questions about your baby's strange bowel movements and colorful poop: Should I worry when the color turns green? Is the milk causing a problem? Is my baby's digestion on track?

Here are the basics to get you through this stage in your baby's life:

Is My Newborn Normal?

The moment your newborn is delivered, you're bound to heave a heavy sigh of relief. But if you're like most first-time parents, that relief doesn't last long.

Unexpected birthmarks, a pulsating soft spot, jaundice, skin rashes, eyes that cross, head lumps and bumps: It can all be downright scary and can easily send new parents into panic mode.

"If you don't know what to expect, or especially if you are expecting that sort of 'Hollywood' version of the doll-perfect newborn, seeing and examining your baby for the first time can be quite shocking to some parents -- and even cause some serious anxiety attacks," says Tia Hubbard, MD, nursery pediatrician at the University of California at San Diego Medical Center.

What Are Feces?

Your baby's first bowel movements (BMs) are called "meconium." This is a thick and sticky residue that is greenish-black in color. You should never see it after day 3 of your baby's life.

Food in, feces out. Your baby swallows the milk, which is digested by the acids in the stomach and moves into the small intestine. The digested, smaller nutritional elements and water get absorbed into the bloodstream, and the larger, undigested ones (like fiber) keep moving through. If the undigested ones continue down the intestines at a leisurely pace, the water has time to be absorbed and what comes out may be quite firm. Alternatively, if things are moving rapidly, the water has no time to be absorbed and the stools can be quite loose (diarrhea).

As the stool moves thorough the intestines, it also picks up various digestive juices, bile, bacteria, and other chemicals, which impart their characteristic color and odor.

The Effects of Breast Milk vs. Formula

What baby eats makes a difference in the final product. Breast milk tends to be absorbed more completely -- sometimes there is so little residue to come out that a baby may not have a BM for days. On the other hand, many breastfed babies pass a mustardy, "seedy" yellow stool with each feeding, at least for a short while. Formula-fed babies tend to have darker, tan-colored stools that are less frequent.

Most importantly, every baby is different, and there is a very wide range of what is called normal poop.

Tips for Concerned Parents

Don't be frightened by the color changes of your baby's bowel movements. In normal infants, BMs change color and frequency as the baby's diet changes, as the digestive tract matures, and as it is populated by new, normal bacteria. It's rare that color changes signal a digestive problem. Usually, color changes just mean that there is more or less of the yellow/green/brown/orange pigments that are picked up along the way.