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What your child's poop says about their health, according to a dietitian.

Poop – often the brunt of a joke, and a word triggering endless giggles amongst children.

Despite it being an often unpleasant necessity, monitoring your child’s poop can actually provide an invaluable window into what’s happening inside your child’s body and their overall health.

Poop can indicate anything from the balance of their gut microbes, to the way their bodies respond to foods, or whether they have sufficient stomach acid and bile

So, let’s dig a little deeper into what your child’s poop might be indicating about their overall health.

What actually is poop?

Put simply, poop is basically a combination of whatever is left over once food has passed through the digestive system. It consists of water, bacteria, undigested food, fibre, small amounts of fat, small amounts of mucus and other proteins.

Poop varies greatly from child to child, day to day and there is no universally accepted ‘gold standard’ for defining ‘normal’ poop. In saying this, generally healthy poop should take under 10 minutes to excrete, should come out without strain or pain, be a brown colour and shaped like a tube or a banana.

Does the colour matter?

Given that poop is made up mostly of broken down food, the foods your child eats can greatly impact and vary the resulting colour of poop!

Typically, in a healthy child, you’d expect poop to be brown. This is because it contains bilirubin – a pigment produced due to a normal process in which red blood cells are broken down in the body. A green stool is generally nothing to be concerned about as it’s usually related to eating green foods (e.g. spinach), or the stool may have moved through the intestines slightly faster than usual leaving less time to pick up as much of the brown bilirubin pigment. Similarly, a reddish poop usually indicates your child has eaten red foods such as beetroots or tomato juice.

We usually find breastfed babies’ poop is more likely to differ in colour, depending on what Mum has eaten, whereas formula fed babies get the same food daily so they may have less poop colour variations.

However, it’s important to understand different coloured poop can also indicate serious underlying issues. Pale or clay coloured poop could be an indication of a bile duct obstruction and if it’s black or dark red, this could be a sign of internal bleeding from the GI tract. The most important thing is to look out for unusual changes in your child’s poop colour which seem to linger for more than a couple of days, as further investigation may be needed.

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Shades of poop. Image: Karobarmart.com
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When is smell a concern?

The reason poop generally has bad odour is due to the presence of bacteria. The smell will also be a reflection of how long the poop was in the intestines - the longer it sits in bacteria, the more it’ll smell. Certain components of meals, including spices, protein, onion and garlic can intensify the smell. This is completely normal.

If your child’s poop has a particular strong odour (and different to usual), or the smell hangs around for a while, this may be indicative of an underlying condition such as a malabsorption issue, which is worth talking to your doctor about.

What about the consistency?

Waste moves from the small intestine to the bowel in a liquid-like form. However, once in the bowel, most of the water is absorbed back into the body, leaving behind a firm poop. The ideal poop has a soft, smooth consistency, making it easy to excrete.

A stool that is liquid or mushy suggests diarrhea, and this usually means that the poop has moved too quickly through the bowels. This can be due to a number of reasons such as poor diet, food intolerances or a nasty bug, which all result in poor nutrient absorption. Make sure that your child’s diet includes adequate fibre (e.g. wholegrains or vegetables) as it plays an important role in helping to firm up loose stools by acting like a sponge for water.

A hard poop on the other hand can indicate constipation. This can be caused by decreased motility throughout the large bowel, meaning too much water is reabsorbed, leaving the poop too solid for comfortable excretion. Alternatively, it may be due to a lack of fibre in the diet. A diet rich in fibre is essential to bulk up the stool and help to retain some of the water and thus a soft, smooth consistency. Dehydration can also play a role so it’s important to ensure your child is drinking plenty of water.

The Bristol Stool Chart was developed by researchers to assess poop quality. It is a visual guide that is divided into 7 categories and provides one way to identify potential digestive troubles for children who are eating solids.

Ideally, stools should resemble Type 3, 4 or 5.

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Britsol stool chart. Image: Continence Foundation of Australia.
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Can you see food?

Sometimes you might notice undigested food in your child’s poop, which is usually associated with high amounts of insoluble fibre in their diet (such as corn).

Undigested food may also be related to your child’s eating behaviours. Chewing food properly is an essential step at the beginning of a successful digestion process. If your child is rushing food into their mouth then it becomes very difficult for proper digestion to occur.

To promote better digestion, give your child ample time to finish (and enjoy!) their meal or snack and encourage them to chew their food properly.

In some cases, undigested food in a child’s poop can mean something a little more serious. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, food intolerances, allergies, bacterial infections and coeliac disease can all cause food and nutrient malabsorption or incorrect processing by the digestive system. If you’re noticing your child is also feeling lethargic, complaining of stomach aches or isn’t growing as they should be, it’s definitely worth consulting your doctor.

Sink or float?

Due to variations in diet, your child’s poop may change in structure and density, anywhere from sinking to floating or somewhere in between. It is often thought that a sinking poop is a sign of a healthy fibre intake because fibre is known to add bulk to stools, making it heavier.

However, the research is still out on whether this is accurate or not. We do know that if the body isn’t properly absorbing fat, then it is passed into the stool, causing it to float. Whilst one-off floating stools are usually of no concern, if your child is regularly passing floaters then it may be time for a visit to your doctor.

Bottom Line.

No parent likes to see their child suffer with uncomfortable tummy symptoms. If you are worried about your child’s poop, it might be worth keeping a 7-day diary to keep a close eye on the relationship between the food your child is eating and their resulting poop.

Look out for irregular patterns that continue over multiple days and from here you may wish to consult your doctor or dietitian for further advice.

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