7 things you need to know about a baby’s digestive system and why sweetcorn comes out whole!

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I bet since you started having children, the topic of poo has featured quite a lot in your conversations. Probably more so than before.

If you are anything like my clients, you likely have some questions about poo that go unanswered and one of the most common ones I get is all about sweet corn!

Is it normal to see sweetcorn kernels in your poo? 

In this blog I’ll take you through what goes on in your baby’s digestive system and why sweetcorn comes out whole…. and what you can do about it. 


How your baby’s digestive system (and the microbiome) works

The digestive system is really very complex so let me break down what’s happening. It’s actually a combination of organs that work together to break down food [1]. 

  • Mouth – digestion actually starts in our mouth as we chew the food and our saliva contains an enzyme that starts to digest carbs.

  • Esophagus (food pipe) – after swallowing, food moves into the esophagus. This is the tube that runs from the back of the mouth to the stomach. The muscles in this tube move in a wave-like way (peristalsis) to move the food down to the stomach. 

  • Stomach – the food is mixed with our digestive juices before where more digestion happens before being emptied bit by bit into the small intestine. 

  • Small intestine – the muscles here mix the food with some more digestive juices that come from the pancreas and liver and push the food on slowly. Water and the digested nutrients from food are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine.

  • Large intestine: here, its mainly water that is absorbed, which just leaves the waste products that your body can’t use, which includes undigested food, that are then moved to the rectum. 

  • Rectum – this is the last part of your large intestine. It’s where poo is stored and when you go for a poo it is pushed out of the rectum through the anus.

Phew! How was that for a quick biology lesson?!

The microbiome

Just to complicate things a bit further, the microbiome is involved too. This is the friendly bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in and on our bodies [2]. 

These also help to digest food, make vitamins including vitamin B12, B2, B1 and K, and affect our immune systems, protecting us against disease.

Everyone’s microbiome is unique to each of us and develops from the moment our babies are born [3]. 

Ok, so you know the biology of things, let’s talk about why sweetcorn comes out whole in your little ones nappy!


Can sweetcorn be digested completely?

Poop corn’ occurs because our bodies cannot completely digest sweetcorn. This is because the outer layer of each kernel is made up of a type of fiber called cellulose. 

Cellulose is a rubbery substance that doesn’t break apart easily when chewed – which is why it is often seen whole in your poo. 

So, Is there any nutritional benefit to eating corn?

Sweetcorn does contain useful vitamins and minerals such as folate, thiamine, phosphorus and potassium [4]. However when it’s not digested and it passes through the digestive system whole, we’re not getting these useful nutrients. 

It’s really hard work for your little one’s body to process food and so if it comes out whole then no, there is no real nutritional benefit from eating sweetcorn. 

Is there anything we can do to get that benefit?

Yes, there is!

We just need to help our children’s bodies get that goodness by breaking down the tough outer layer. One way to do this is to mash or chop sweetcorn roughly before adding it into any dishes or serving it to your child.

Older children can be encouraged to give it an extra couple of chews before swallowing.

The sweetcorn experiment – to teach food digestion to children 

However the fact that sweetcorn doesn’t digest easily can be a really useful way to teach your child all about how their digestive system works.  All it takes is three simple steps! [5]

  1. Don’t eat any sweetcorn for 7 days. 

  2. Eat some sweetcorn – it can be fresh, tinned, or frozen, on it’s own or with a meal , any size portion is fine. Take a note of the date and time.

  3. Don’t eat any more sweetcorn! Now wait for the sweetcorn to appear in your poop, make a note of when the kernels first appear. 

This experiment shows you how fast or slow your digestive system is.

Ideally, you should see the poop corn between 24 to 36 hours. If the corn appears less than 12 hours, your little one’s digestion is quite fast, and you could be looking at a case of diarrhea. At the other end of the spectrum, if it takes more than 36 hours, then consider if your little one is constipated [6]. 

NOTE: Adults’ digestive systems take a little longer (more like 48 hours) – this is normal in adults!


What does healthy poo look like? 

Ideally, poop should be smooth and soft like a sausage or perhaps like corn on the cob, (sausage shapes with cracks on the surface) these are types 3-4 on the Bristol stool chart [9].

What makes up poo?

Poop is made up of all the food that cannot be digested or absorbed by the body. This is why your poop can change colour, or corn might appear – as it reflects the food you have recently eaten. 

Ideal frequency

Similarly to the looks of poo, we all also have different pooing patterns. Ideally, children should have at least one poo per day, but no more than three per day [10].

Digestion concerns – when to see the doctor?

It’s normal for children to get an upset stomach from time to time or occasionally suffer from diarrhea or constipation. However, there are also times where this could indicate something more worrisome and so should be seen by a GP. 

Symptoms

As a general rule, if your child has constipation lasting for more than two weeks or home treatments don’t work, then take them to see the GP. 

Other reasons to see a GP are if your little one has: 

  • blood in the poo

  • bleeding from the rectum

  • constant abdominal pain

  • bloating

  • vomiting

  • weight loss. 

Your GP will rule out other medical problems such as food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s Disease or Colitis) and coeliac disease. 


Best ways to help improve digestion 

We all occasionally get digestive symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, and gas – and children are no exception. These are usually nothing to worry about, but you can make some diet and lifestyle changes to improve and prevent these symptoms. 

Eat more fiber

Eating more high fiber foods can improve digestion [13] and help prevent constipation. 

Fiber is the part of plant foods that we cannot digest – like the cellulose in sweetcorn.

It’s beneficial as it’s known to improve constipation, enhancing immunity, it can even help keep your heart healthy! Some fiber also increases the amount of friendly probiotic bacteria in the digestive system as it acts as a food source for it, helping it grow [7].  

Another benefit of fiber is that it keeps you feeling fuller for longer between meals, reducing those constant requests for snacks! 

 Some excellent sources of fiber are [8]:

  • Wholegrain foods such as whole-grain or seeded bread and brown rice and pasta, oats, and potato skin. And yes it is OK for little ones to have wholegrain versions of food.

  • Beans and pulses, which can include foods like hummus and baked beans.

  • Vegetables – peas, sweetcorn, green beans, broccoli, and actually all vegetables but especially those eaten with their skin, such as carrots and parsnips.

  • Fruits such as pears, apples, prunes, bananas – and all the others!

  • Nut butters, ground nuts and seeds. 

Drink more fluid

But alongside increasing fiber, it is important to increase your fluid intake to keep poop soft. This is because fiber is like a hard sponge and it needs the water to soften it. Without increasing your little one’s fluid intake, an increase in fiber may lead to constipation. 

Increase activity and movement

Increasing your child’s activity can help improve constipation as it in turn speeds up the wave of muscle contractions (peristalsis) in the digestive system [14]. This helps to move food through the digestive system faster and increases the frequency of pooing. 

Try walking, running, kicking a ball, visiting the playground and pedalling a bicycle. 

Try a probiotic supplement

Probiotics are friendly bacteria that live in your digestive system and make up some of the microbiome. However those who have constipation or diarrhea may benefit from a probiotic supplement to raleigh the levels of those friendly bacteria.

Not all probiotics do the same job, so be careful to choose one that contains the right bacteria for the problem your child has. If you are not sure, you can read my probiotics blog here with links to specific products that help.


Corn recipes to try!

I love sweetcorn and because it’s a sweeter veggie, it’s often one which children prefer to eat too. Here is a list of some of my favourite corn-based recipes that I hope you will love. 

  1. Courgette & Sweetcorn Fritters

  2. Pumpkin and Corn Baked Risotto

  3. Vegetable Quesadillas

  4. Chicken, Sweetcorn & Tarragon Pie

  5. Tuna and Sweetcorn Fritters

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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