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The Scoop on Poop: What to Do About Undigested Food in Your Child's Stool

02/18/2015 02:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Let's just admit it: Most new parents obsess about their babies' diapers. I'm not talking about the type of diaper -- cloth, disposable, designer prints or plain white -- but rather the contents of your baby's diaper.
 
Now that we've addressed this embarrassing parenting truth, let's talk about when you glimpse visible, intact pieces of yesterday's dinner or today's lunch staring back at you from down on the changing table. Other than being a little gross, what exactly does undigested food in stool mean in terms of your child's health?

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The good news is, most undigested food in stool causes are nothing to worry about. When we interviewed Danny Thomas, MD, the head of the division of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Children's Hospital Los Angeles for Kids in the House, he told me thatundigested food in stool, along with diarrhea, is one of the most common reasons parents come to see him. "People bring their child into our office, because they are concerned that their toddler is passing what looks like undigested food into their stool. They want to know if this is normal, is there something wrong with their digestion and what they should do about it. More importantly, should they change their diet?" The answer is almost always no, Thomas explained. "This is a common problem that happens a lot -- it's actually pretty normal. If you think about it, before you are toilet trained, you just poop when you need to poop. Whatever you have eaten doesn't sit in the colon very long; therefore, the colon and the bacteria in the colon don't digest it very well. It comes out and you can see (the food) intact. After you are potty trained, you only go to the bathroom once or twice a day and these things sit in your colon. When they sit in your colon, the bacteria and other digestive enzymes sit in there and further digest it and you don't see it so much."
 
Okay, but what about when your child is potty trained -- what exactly is this undigested food in stool, toddler edition, telling you about your child's gut? Again, It can be perfectly normal to see whole pieces of corn, nuts or other foods in the toilet -- especially if your child's stool is loose. This might just be toddler's diarrhea, a condition where kids are prone to loose stools, often with pieces of undigested food or mucous in them. Toddler's diarrhea tends to strike boys more than girls, and can cause a child to have multiple bouts of smelly, pale, loose stools per day -- sometimes up to 10 of them. There's no known cause for this condition, but most kids grow out of it eventually, and as long as they are staying on their growth curve and otherwise healthy, there's usually no need for intervention.

However, there are times when undigested food in a child's stool does mean something more serious is going on. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), food intolerances and allergies, bacterial infections and celiac disease can cause food to be "malabsorbed," or not processed correctly by the digestive system. If your child is also acting lethargic, complaining of stomachaches or isn't growing as he or she should be, it's time to see your doctor.

If your child is healthy and happy, the only thing you need to be concerned about with undigested food in their stool is the ick-factor. But if you look at it with a sense of humor, it can actually be a fun lesson in how our digestive systems work. Look in your child's diaper if you dare -- you might be shocked at some of the stuff you see. Even the experts aren't immune, according to Dr. Thomas. "You see the oddest things your toddler's poop," he told us during his interview. "My daughter will probably kill me for saying this, but my wife and I were changing her diaper one day and she had an intact Chiquita Banana sticker in her poop. We were kind of wondering if she ate the entire banana or what!"

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