If there’s anyone in the world who focuses almost as much attention on our children’s diets as parents do, it’s the dietitians who help parents deal with kids’ digestive problems. If you’re wondering how to set your child up for good digestive health now and later on, ask a dietitian.
There’s a very simple formula for building a healthy digestive system: fiber, fluid, and exercise.
“If a child is missing out on one or more of those things, they’re probably going to run into some problems,” says Louise Goldberg, RD, LD, owner of An Apple A Day Nutrition Consulting in Houston, Texas, and formerly a dietitian at the Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in the Houston Medical Center.
Building Block 1: High-Fiber Foods
Let’s start with fiber. How much should your child be getting, and where can you find it?
Leading health organizations recommend that both kids and adults should get about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories they eat. That usually means that little ones ages 1-3 should get about 19 grams of fiber per day, and kids ages 4-8 should eat around 25 grams of fiber daily.
Most dietitians consider a food high in fiber if it contains at least 3-5 grams per serving. If you’re an adult, you might be able to get that by sprinkling bran flakes on your morning yogurt, but that’s not likely to appeal to a 5-year-old. Some of the most kid-friendly high-fiber foods include:
- Apples and pears -- with the peel on, please!
- Beans of all kinds. Try a three-bean chili with kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans, all of which have at least 16 grams of fiber per serving.
- High-fiber cereal. Kids may not flip for muesli, but many of them like raisin bran-type cereals, which contain about 5 grams of fiber per bowl.
- Sandwiches on whole-grain bread or wraps, or made with a whole-grain English muffin.
- Baked potatoes – preferably with the skin on. Make it fun by setting up a “baked potato bar” and letting your kids choose toppings like shredded cheese, light sour cream, broccoli, and chopped green onions or sprouts.
- Any kind of berry with seeds. Kids love berries and often gobble them like candy. “One of the highest-fiber berries, raspberries, has just as much fiber in a handful as you’ll find in a whole apple,” Goldberg says.
- Yogurt. Although yogurt isn’t necessarily a high-fiber food on its own, it’s generally good for digestive health. “Yogurt contains probiotics, healthy bacteria that are good for the gut,” says Beth Pinkos, MS, RD, LDN, a dietitian for the department of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology, nutrition and liver diseases at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island. “The Greek yogurts that are popular now are particularly good, high in probiotics and in proteins.” You can also add to yogurt’s fiber content by tossing in some granola, if your child won’t protest the surprising crunch in the middle of the smooth.
- Rice cereal for babies. (It’s really not a necessary first food, so if your baby seems constipated, you can probably skip it and move on to things like veggie and fruit purees.)
- Refined “white” foods like sugar, white rice, and white breads
- Cheese and other dairy products
“Some children are very sensitive to excessive dairy intake; you may try limiting that to help with bowel regulation,” says Pinkos. “Other kids it doesn’t seem to affect as much.”
Multivitamins can also be constipating for some kids. “Those containing iron can be a particular issue,” says Erin Helmick, RD, a dietitian in the gastroenterology department at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. “If your child needs more iron, try to get it to them in their food through iron-rich lean meats and dark green vegetables. But if they can’t get enough iron in their diet, then you may need other medications to help with bowel regularity.”
Building Block 2: Plenty of Fluids
It can be easy to get so focused on fiber for digestive health that you forget about the other component your child needs to take in: plenty of fluids.
“When you get plenty of fiber and not enough fluid, it’s like putting superglue in your gut,” says Pinkos. “It just makes matters worse. So you need to make sure that your child is drinking plenty of water, plus some milk, during the day.” If you live in a warm climate, particularly if your child is getting a lot of outdoor exercise, they’re going to be sweating out their fluid intake faster, so be sure to take plenty of water breaks.
Parents may think that they’re giving their child a boost with sports drinks and “power beverages,” but they’re really just sugary drinks like juices, Pinkos adds. “Children should be getting the majority of their fluids from water.” Limit juices to 4 ounces a day in younger children, and 6-8 ounces a day in school-aged kids.
Building Block 3: Exercise
It’s good for your heart, it’s good for your lungs, it’s good for your immune system -- it makes perfect sense that exercise would be good for your digestive system as well. So the final piece of the digestive health puzzle for your child is plenty of physical activity.
“Exercise just helps keep things moving along, as opposed to when you’re sitting there,” says Pinkos. “Any physical activity will stimulate activity in the gastrointestinal tract and help you to digest your food better.”
When they’re exercising or just very busy playing, kids may not want to take a break to go to the bathroom. Especially if they’re younger, you may have to make sure that they stick to a regular toilet schedule, since frequently holding in urine and waste can lead to bowel problems and constipation.
Another factor that can play a big role in digestive health, particularly for kids, is stress. “Stress can definitely lead to constipation,” says Goldberg. “It’s often also a factor in other digestive problems, like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease.”
If you’re working with your child on toilet issues, don’t put on too much pressure. “Sometimes children will retain their stool because they’re afraid of potty training, or it hurt at one point and they’re a little fearful, so they make themselves not go,” says Goldberg. “It’s very important that if kids are potty training, or they’ve had a bad bathroom experience, that you don’t make it overwhelming for them. Talk to your child and help them feel reassured and relaxed, and consult your pediatrician.”