Skip to content

Poop Patrol


It’s the one question that all parents ask about their newborn – “Is this normal? How can such a small thing create such a lot of mess?

One of the things that stood out to me from Ross Fisher’s presentation on “What every Paediatric Surgeon wished you knew” was the line, “There is no such thing as a normal bowel habit“.

Picture of grizzled surgeon, Ross Fisher, with the text - There is no such thing as a normal bowel habit

In an effort to avoid changing yet another nappy (diaper to some of you), I thought I would take a closer look.

Meconium – the very first poo

As the fetus matures in utero, surrounded by amniotic fluid, it ingests anything that is floating alongside it, like a child in a poorly kept public swimming pool. Along with amniotic fluid and bile, mucus, lanugo and epithelial cells are swallowed down and retained until after birth (usually).  This doesn’t usually happen until about the 26th week of gestation. Initial bacterial colonization of the neonatal gut was thought to occur due to contamination from the mother at this time.

Still, some studies have revealed the presence of bacteria in seemingly sterile meconium.

Dark tarry poo in the middle of dirty nappy

Most babies (around 90%) will pass their first meconium stool within 12 hours of birth. Some, between 8% and 10% of term deliveries, may pass it before birth, leading to meconium-stained amniotic fluid (MASF). Whilst this is harmless if swallowed, it may lead to respiratory distress if inhaled.

Meconium is often described as thick and tarry, and it is easy to see how it might plug small bronchioles, leading to meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS).

Why may babies pass meconium early?

The passage of meconium in utero is linked with fetal distress. As the number of pregnancies that go on beyond 41 weeks has dropped, the incidence of MAS has also dropped.

Black wall with yellow and white text showing the risk factors for early passage of meconium

One theory, based on animal models, is that periods of cord compression and subsequent fetal hypoxia lead to increased parasympathetic activity. This causes stronger waves of peristalsis coupled with relaxation of the anal sphincter and, thus, the passage of meconium.

Whilst meconium-stained amniotic fluid is relatively common, only 2% to 3% of infants born through this liquor exhibit MAS.

In the olden days (the 1970s), paediatricians aggressively suctioned the neonate’s airway to remove any meconium, and this was thought to be the cause of reduced MAS mortality and morbidity. A large randomized controlled trial of over 2500 children with MSAF found no difference in rates of MAS or mortality if they had undergone intrapartum suction of the oropharynx.

What are some risk factors for meconium aspiration syndrome?

Several trials have also shown that routine intubation and suction of vigorous infants born through MSAF did not decrease the risk of MAS.

There appears to be no correlation between the type of feed (breast milk vs. formula) and the time to passage of meconium. A delay in passage of meconium after day 2 occurs in 32% of preterm infants. The usual rate of passage (in unfed infants) is around one per day. As feeding is introduced, stool frequency increases by one for every 50ml/kg of milk.

The normal passage of meconium

The average amount of meconium passed is between 200 and 600g (Grulee and Bonar, 1926). This amounts to between 5% and 17% of the average infant’s body weight!

Passing meconium too late

Failure to pass meconium in a timely fashion may herald intestinal obstruction. This may be due to a myriad of causes beyond the remit of this post.

  • Hirschsprung’s disease
  • Meconium plug syndrome
  • Meconium ileus (of which Cystic Fibrosis is the most common cause)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Anorectal malformation

Meconium can be used to screen neonates for drug exposure in utero.

The transition phase

As a diet of amniotic fluid makes way for colostrum and breast milk, stool changes colour from a green-black tar to something else entirely. Whilst it should be a mustard yellow (wholegrain) in appearance, a pale stool may herald the presence of biliary atresia. Taiwan has a national stool colour card screening program to help detect the disease early, whilst those who rely on technology might like to know that “there is an app for that“.

How often do babies poo?

A small 1979 study collected a smorgasbord of samples on children between birth and 24 months. Repeated studies have provided similar data.

Breastfed infants

Stool frequency peaks around day five as lactation establishes and then slowly drops to 4 actions per day by day 7.  Anyone that has changed a breastfed infant’s nappy will have marvelled at the ‘seedy’ nature of the poo.

Formula-fed infants

Children who receive breast milk pass softer stools and do so more often than those who receive formula. It’s a different consistency from the breastfed child’s – it’s thicker and more like (smooth) peanut butter. By the time they reach 16 weeks, there is very little difference between the two.

As children age, they tend to pass stool once (or more per day), depending on diet.

A fascinating study performed on kids in the 1980s who seemed to subsist on a diet of snack foods, tinned spaghetti, fish fingers, and chips found that most kids passed small sausage-sized stools that became harder with age.

The mean transit time was around 33 hours—useful information for parents of kids who have swallowed coins!


Arias A, Bennison J, Justus K, Thurman D. Educating parents about normal stool pattern changes in infants. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 2001 Oct 31;15(5):269-74.

Gulcan H, Gungor S, Tiker F, Kilicdag H. Effect of perinatal factors on time of first stool passage in preterm newborns: An open, prospective study. Current therapeutic research. 2006 Jun 30;67(3):214-25.

Steer CD, Emond AM, Golding J, Sandhu B. The variation in stool patterns from 1 to 42 months: a population-based observational study. Archives of disease in childhood. 2008 Aug 1.

Weaver LT, Ewing G, Taylor LC. The bowel habit of milk-fed infants. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 1988 Jul 1;7(4):568-71.

Weaver LT, Lucas A. Development of bowel habit in preterm infants. Archives of disease in childhood. 1993 Mar 1;68(3 Spec No):317-20.

Weaver, L.T. and Steiner, H., 1984. The bowel habit of young childrenArchives of Disease in Childhood59(7), pp.649-652.



No data was found

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *