As a potty training consultant, I hear from parents every week whose toddlers and preschoolers are constipated, anxious about using the toilet, and having most of their bowel movements in their pants, sometimes pooping less than once per week! Most of these parents have sought help from their family doctor only to be told that constipation is normal for kids and nothing to worry about. How many of you have had a similar experience?
I would like to share something with you that you probably already know… childhood constipation does occur frequently, but it is not “normal”. It is a sign that something is not right, whether that is an undiagnosed health issue, a food intolerance, an emotional upset or something else. Your poop, to quote Dr. William Sears, is window to your health. Problems with poop, whether too hard and infrequent or too loose (diarrhea), therefore should never be dismissed as “normal”. Even in babies, digestive issues show up as "colic", upset tummies, gassiness, and frequent spit-up.
Often a multi-faceted approach must be taken to overcome chronic poop problems in children, including dietary changes, supplements, ergonomic considerations and improving a child’s relationship with their eliminations. This is because it is imperative that we consider the WHOLE child in order to solve this complex issue. The goal is not to “make them poop”, it is to create the conditions in which they can maintain their optimal health, by having healthy poops and feeling comfortable about eliminating in a place that is appropriate for their age and ability.
Today I want to share with you several non-invasive, gentle, modalities that affect systemic change in the WHOLE BODY, and have been proven to be extremely effective in managing digestive issues in children in both the short and long term. These include, acupuncture, cranio-sacral therapy and chiropractic therapy.
Please note that the information provided here is not medical advice. This post is intended to inform and educate parents about approaches that can be used as part of an overall program to support their child’s healing. Consulting with your family doctor is always recommended when your child is experiencing a health issue.
I have been a fan of acupuncture and Chinese medicine for many years, having used it myself for women’s health and pregnancy support as well as immune system support and overall wellness. Acupuncture, described by local pediatric acupuncturist Catherine Woodlock, is the insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body that engage the body’s natural healing mechanisms. Like all the modalities I am going to talk about today, acupuncture doesn’t treat just one symptom; it affects change in the whole individual to promote healing.
Does that sound confusing, or too “woo woo” for you?
After years of experience as a patient, I can tell you that I don’t totally understand the mechanics of it myself, but I CAN tell you that it works. According to the acupuncturists that I interviewed, it works even more efficiently in children than it does in adults!
Acupuncture is very effective for bowel issues, both constipation and diarrhea, according to Cathrine Woodlock and Kelsey Shaw, registered acupuncturists at Whole Family Health. “Acupuncture stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. This helps to calm the nervous system and improve digestion. It can also help to increase peristalsis (the contraction and stimulation of muscles) in the intestines, which can relieve constipation”. Anecdotally I have been told that many kids will take a big nap and a have a large bowel movement following treatment.
Eldyka Simpson, registered acupuncturist at Ripple Effect Wellness Centre, highlights how acupuncture relaxes the body and mind, which in turn relaxes the bowels. One of her patients, a girl of around 10 years old was suffering from stomach aches and what appeared to be IBS-like symptoms. The girl was visibly anxious, her body quite rigid and hands clenched at the start of their meeting. Within minutes of starting treatment the girl became visibly relaxed on the treatment table, a common response to the immediate effects of acupuncture. After a few treatments she was no longer in pain, and her symptoms began to improve.
Acupuncture can be a wonderful tool in any parents repertoire, and aside from digestive issues, it is very effective in treating many common parental concerns including bedwetting, colic, sleep issues, behavioural issues, eczema, and allergies as well as silent reflux and excessive spitting up in babies.
Hold the phone… babies?
How old do kids need to be to be treated with acupuncture? Eldyka Simpson is a certified doula as well as an acupuncturist and has treated babies as little as 2-3 hours old in the delivery room! Though at that age treatments are extremely gentle and she relies on more acupressure and cranio-sacral therapy (which will be discussed below). All of the acupuncturists I consulted with agreed that there is no minimal age to start.
A common issue that I see are young children withholding their bowel movements intentionally, often because of a previous painful potty experience. This creates a vicious cycle where the more they withhold, the more backed-up they get and the more painful and large their poops become! One of the acupuncturists at Whole Family Health recently worked with a family whose 2 year old daughter was doing just that, and it was causing a lot of distress in both the parents and child. Together with the acupuncturist, they developed a treatment plan that included dietary changes as well as acupuncture. After the first treatment, the parents reported that there was already a significant improvement in her bowel movements. After 3 weeks of acupuncture treatment twice per week, her bowel movements had returned to a regular, healthy state.
According to all of the acupuncturists that I interviewed, some improvement can usually be seen after only 1 treatment, and because children respond so well to acupuncture, significant change often occurs after only 3 or 4 sessions.
Understandably, many parents are apprehensive about the thought of taking their kids in to be poked by needles, especially when their own experiences with needles, such as receiving injections or having blood drawn, have been uncomfortable or downright painful! However, acupuncture is performed with needles that are super-tiny, only about 1/6 of the size of a hypodermic needle and the pediatric needles are even smaller!
Whereas in adults acupuncture needles are usually left in place for a long time, in children they are inserted very briefly and then removed. Oftentimes children do not even notice. However, most acupuncturists use a variety of modalities and tools available at their disposal to stimulate the acupuncture points, so if needles are a deal-breaker for you, call around and find out what else they have to offer! Acupuncturists who specialize in pediatric acupuncture will be flexible and work with you to find treatment options that are the best fit for your child and family. The photo below, for example, shows an acupuncturist using tuning forks to stimulate acupressure points.
Cranio-Sacral Therapy (CST) is another modality that can be very successfully used to treat constipation. It is a hands-on therapy that uses really light pressure touch to look for restrictions within the body and release those tensions to create balance. Because it is so very subtle and gentle, it works very well for young babies, especially helping them recover from any birth trauma, car seat discomfort, gassiness and excessive spitting up.
I spoke with mom Ashley Da Silva about her experiences using Acupuncture and CST for her now 20 month old son, who shared that she started taking him for acupuncture and CST when he was 4 months old. At that time he was exclusively breastfed but suffering from constipation as he would only have a bowel movement about every 2 days. “I would take him for these treatments (his acupuncturist does both) and typically within an hour after the treatment he would have a bowel movement.”
Unfortunately her son's constipation increased when they started supplementing his diet with formula, but these issues were helped immensely through continuing his visits for acupuncture and CST as well as adding probiotics to his diet. “After his first treatment, we noticed a difference in his mood. He was starting to get more on the cranky side. We did realize afterwards that it was also his lack of long naps that was leading to the crankiness. The acupuncture did help with his sleep, constipation and gas.” Ashley finds that continuing with treatments on a monthly basis has also helped them manage a variety of common childhood ailments from teething to digestion as well as eczema.
My personal interest in Chiropractic therapy began early in pregnancy with my son. Until then, like many of you probably, I thought of Chiropractors as back-crackers. It was my (very limited) understanding that you went to a chiropractor to put your bones back in place after a car accident or sports injury or something. I clearly had no idea, really. But… as it turns out my sister had taken her kids to a pediatric chiropractor for a few non-bone-related issues, and a friend of mine was going as part of her fertility journey. So I gave it a shot as I was having terrible back pain.
It was then that the chiropractic doctor opened my mind to how manipulation of the spine impacts the health of the whole nervous system, promoting overall health. Like acupuncture and CST, chiropractic is not a treatment for digestive issues specifically, however when your nervous system, which controls vital components of your digestive system, is functioning well optimal health is achieved.
As with acupuncture, parents are often apprehensive about having their kids adjusted. They may have had a poor experience themselves in the past, or hold on to a belief that adjustments are rough and painful. This view couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, chiropractic adjustments for kids are nothing like the adult ones (which aren’t painful either in my experience). The doctors make kids feel very safe and secure, use very light touch and are very mindful of how your little one is feeling. I have been taking my son for regular adjustments since he was only a couple of weeks old, and the adjustments are very relaxing for him. At age 2 he LOVES to visit the chiropractor, and completely melts on the table while being adjusted.
According to the chiropractic doctor that I interviewed, digestive concerns including colic, gas, spit-up and constipation are some of the most common reasons that families bring their kids to be adjusted. Life inside the womb as well as the birthing process can actually cause trauma to the spine of babies, so having them adjusted as soon as possible helps ensure that their nervous system is communicating and functioning as it should. He reports that parents usually notice significant changes with their child’s digestive issues within 2-4 weeks of starting chiropractic care.
A mom of twins, Elda Havlin, shared her chiropractic journey with me, “My twins were born at 36 weeks, 2 days - my girl was 4 lbs even and my boy 5lbs 10 oz at birth, but we were lucky and had almost no NICU time. When they were around 8 weeks old (4 weeks adjusted), I felt like something was wrong - my girl especially seemed super uncomfortable all the time - we tried burping, Ovol, gripe water, foot massage, tummy massage, etc. but nothing seemed to relieve her (what I assumed was) gassiness. My boy was in a similar state but not as extreme.” A friend suggested she try taking her babies to a chiropractor, and though she was hesitant, she needed to find a way to ease her babies discomfort!
At the appointment, the doctor had Elda lie on her back, on the chiropractic table, with her still tiny baby on her chest, face down. The doctor talked her through everything she was doing, while slowly and very gently feeling along her daughter’s spine and making small adjustments as she went. Elda says she didn’t hear or even feel the adjustments being made to her baby, but as the doctor worked the baby started passing gas. Like A LOT. “I honestly had never heard her toot as loud or as long! It was like she’s had this gas stored up inside her for her whole life!” Within a few minutes after the adjustment, her baby girl had a huge loud poop which her mom called a “mega blowout”! Unfortunate to clean-up (we’ve all been there!!), but what an amazing experience! Elda reports that her son’s adjustment had a similar outcome but not quite as extreme as her daughter’s.
Elda was even more amazed when they returned home, “she was honestly like a whole new baby! She was clearly happier, more comfortable, and enjoying life again!” She continued to take her babies for adjustments, first twice then once per week for a couple of months. Her twins are now busy toddlers and she reports that they are rocking potty training!
Thankfully both of the mom’s I spoke to were able to find help using alternative medicine when their babies were very young. Unfortunately many parents don’t find these alternatives and their kids digestive issues are not taken seriously by their doctors. This leaves parents with irritable, uncomfortable babies, and constipated toddlers, wreaking havoc on potty training and causing distress for the whole family.
In terms of constipation and other digestive problems, these modalities are extremely effective but they are often not the only solution that parents need to consider. You can be assured that after a few treatments your child’s body is now communicating optimally but if they are still experiencing symptoms, there might be an issue that acupuncture, CST or chiropractic can’t address. These would include things like poor diet, food allergies, life stress and other underlying health issues. When we are considering a holistic approach to healing, we must remember to consider the WHOLE child, a multi-faceted approach will lead to the best outcomes.
For parents whose kids have already been through the gamut of western medicine, alternative approaches are safe and work very well in conjunction with the approaches that your doctor might recommend, including pharmaceutical stool softeners and laxatives. Many families see improvement while using pharmaceuticals, but their child’s troubles return as soon as they wean off the drugs. All of the modalities I have written about in this post have been very effective as well for helping kids reduce their dependency and eventually stop using pharmaceutical products while maintaining healthy, regular bowel movements.
Have you tried acupuncture, CST or chiropractic to overcome your child's digestive issues? If so, please share your experience with us in the comments.
For information on overcoming potty refusal and poop withholding, check out my previous post, Top 3 Tips for Getting Poops in the Potty. And, definitely download my free recipe book with tasty recipes that will help your child have healthier bowel movements.
Hi! I'm Danielle, your friendly neighbourhood potty specialist.