Most parents spend lots of time thinking about what goes into their children's mouths — but little to no time thinking about what comes out the other end.
To be fair, poop has a reputation more as a source of potty humor than an important reflection of health. As such, I find it’s common for a family to bring their child into my office for migraines, seizures, tics, or ADHD and say that their child has normal bowel movements — and yet the child is actually moving their bowels only once every seven days!
As an integrative pediatric neurologist, I'm often the first doctor to have even asked about their child’s stool, so parents are genuinely shocked by the suggestion that it might hold secrets to the problems in their bodies and brains.
But more and more studies now show that what’s happening in the gut can affect what’s happening in the body and brain, and vice versa. For example, an unhealthy gut can manifest as symptoms like anxiety, poor memory, migraines, even seizures. Even though it’s waste, stool is an external reflection of what’s happening inside of our children’s bodies — from how their bodies interact with the food they eat, to whether they have sufficient stomach acid and bile, to whether their gut microbes are in balance.
If your child has a healthy gut and digestion, here's generally what you should notice: Your child poops at least once a day, and it should take under 5 to 10 minutes between entering to exiting the bathroom (of course, bringing a book or a device might artificially increase toilet time). The stool should come out easily, without strain or pain, be brown and shaped like a tube or banana, and clean up easily. It should flush easily — no clogging the toilet or sticking to the basin. And while there may be an odor for a short period of time, it shouldn’t linger for long after the toilet is flushed. Gas, burps, and stomachaches should be minimal.
What else should you know? Here are a few common examples of what your child’s stool might be telling you about their health, and a few easy ways to respond:
1. There's undigested food in the stool.
Digestion starts with careful chewing. Does your child have time to eat in an unrushed way — or is he or she always running to school, the next class or activity, or bedtime? Proper digestion won't happen if eating is rushed. Undigested food may also indicate that your child lacks sufficient stomach acid to break down food.
What To Do: Try to set aside ample time for peaceful meals that encourage better digestion. And an easy way to safely stimulate acid is with a good quality, gentle bitter tonic (like Urban Moonshine Bitters Spray), which stimulates stomach acid production to aid digestion, among other benefits.
2. Your child is constipated.
This can present as any of the following: infrequent, hard, or painful stools; stool that comes out in balls; or a sense of incomplete emptying after moving the bowels.
Constipation can be caused by many culprits. It can be a manifestation of food reactivity (milk and other dairy products being the most common offender, although gluten is a close second). It could also be from eating too many processed foods and not enough fresh produce (especially vegetables) and unprocessed grains (less bread, cereal, and crackers and more quinoa, unprocessed oatmeal, and sprouted rice). Or, it can be caused by chronic stress, as movement of the digestive tract is shut down by the fight-or-flight response.
What To Do: To treat constipation, try keeping your child 100 percent dairy-free for a one-month trial and keep careful track of stool habits for that period. Mineral-rich blackstrap molasses (starting at 1 teaspoon daily), Triphala (an ayurvedic combination of three fruits), and probiotics (beneficial bacteria) can also help.
3. There's often gas, bloating, or loose stool.
We may not want to hear it, but too much sugar in the diet can cause all of these symptoms. Sources of sugar can be obvious like soda or candy, or less so, as with fruit juice, sweetened yogurts, or sometimes lots of fresh fruit.
What To Do: These symptoms also indicate that gut flora is significantly out of balance, which calls for a beneficial bacteria infusion — both with foods naturally rich in beneficial bacteria like fermented cucumbers or sauerkraut (don’t knock it until you try it!), kefir, or even just a good probiotic supplement. A bitter tonic, as mentioned above, can help to boost the intestinal immune system, which helps balance the gut microbiome as well.
4. The child's stool floats and has a sheen.
This often indicates that fat isn't getting absorbed effectively in the digestive tract. But it’s not necessarily because your child is eating too much fat (kids need a lot of healthy fats in the diet for immune system and brain development!).
The gallbladder normally adjusts to more fat in the diet by increasing production of bile, which binds fat and helps it to be absorbed. Without enough bile, fat ends up in the stool, making it float and glisten.
What To Do: Organic dandelion root tea (it can also be part of a blend) used as a beverage or thrown into soup can stimulate bile production and release, and helps the fat to be absorbed.