Background: Constipation in infants

Between 16–40% of the infants with constipation experience symptoms before the age of six months [1-3]. In approximately 90% of infants no specific organic cause can be found [4]. It is well established that the bowel pattern in infants is influenced by the type of feeding in the first months after birth. Constipation is more commonly found in formula-fed infants, who have a greater tendency to produce hard stools compared to breast-fed infants [5]. Differences in the composition between breast- and formula feeding may explain this finding.

The structure of lipids differs between human milk and infant formulas. In both human milk and infant formulas palmitic acid is the predominant saturated fatty acid. In human milk 70–85% of palmitic acid is positioned at the sn-2 position of the triacylglycerol molecule, whereas in regular infant formulas 88–94% of palmitic acid is found at the sn-1 and sn-3 position [6-10]. Lipolysis of triacylglycerol by pancreatic lipase occurs predominantly at the sn-1 and sn-3 positions, yielding free fatty acids and a 2-monoacylglycerol [11,12]. Subsequently, free palmitic acid may form insoluble calcium fatty acid soaps which are excreted via the feces, resulting in firmer stools. Stool hardness has been positively associated with the presence of calcium fatty acid soaps in the stools [5]. In human milk however, palmitic acid esterified at the sn-2 position of the triacylglycerol molecule is well absorbed as 2-monopalmitin, since it readily forms mixed micelles with bile acids [11,13-15].

Human milk is further known to be a rich source of oligosaccharides [16]. These oligosaccharides resist digestion in the small intestine and thus reach the colon unaltered, where they serve as prebiotics [17]. They act as growth substrate for bifidobacteria, which are thought to have beneficial effects on the host's health by supporting the gut barrier, stimulating normal intestinal function, and strengthening the immune system [18-20]. In addition, due to their non-digestibility, they may be considered to be a form of soluble fibres and contribute to the softer stools produced by breast-fed infants [17,21].

Based on these findings, the concept of adding modified triacylglycerol and prebiotic oligosaccharides to infant formulas has arisen. A new infant formula (NF; Nutrilon Omneo, Nutricia Nederland BV, Zoetermeer, the Netherlands) was developed which contains modified vegetable oil with a high proportion (41%) of palmitic acid at the sn-2 position, a mixture of prebiotic oligosaccharides, partially hydrolyzed whey protein and a reduced lactose content. The oligosaccharides mixture consists of 90% short-chain galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and 10% long-chain fructo-oligosaccharides (lcFOS), 0.8 g/100 ml, and resembles human milk oligosaccharides with respect to its molecular weight distribution and high galactose content [22]. The effect of NF on stool frequency and consistency has been assessed in one study in healthy term infants [23]. Infants receiving NF were found to produce softer stools than those fed a regular infant formula. We hypothesized that this NF will also have a positive effect stool characteristics in constipated infants.




1Department of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, Emma Children's Hospital, Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3Department of Pediatrics, Medical Centre Rijnmond-Zuid, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Nutrition Journal 2007, 6:8     doi:10.1186/1475-2891-6-8

The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at:

© 2007 Bongers et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.