Food Accumulation – Constipation – baby, child, even teens

dried leaves on blue wooden fence

Key Learning Points

  • Causes of Food Accumulation
  • Which type? Excess or Deficient! Know the difference!
  • What helps
  • What makes it worse

Food accumulation is the name given to a condition frequently encountered by babies, children and teenagers.

For more information on how it applies to adults, see Food Retention, the Stuffed Gut syndrome (

If food fails to pass on through the intestines, it builds up, stagnating, drying and thickening in an otherwise healthy child or person. This is not quite the same as, but does include, what in the West we call ‘constipation’.

This is common in babies where, in Chinese medicine, it is called Food Accumulation or Accumulation of Food.

It means a form of blockage. It is considered a contributing if not a root cause of many other conditions arising later because of it, including


Many of these conditions are explained in Chinese medicine via the important relationship between the Large Intestine and the Lungs (constituents of the Metal Phase).

Food accumulation interrupts the natural digestive process

In Chinese medicine this comes mainly under the Spleen-Pancreas and Stomach energies), weakening the child, and generating Heat which contributes to rashes, irritability, wakefulness and neediness.

By heating, the condition often also leads to the formation of Phlegm (another big problem and a cause, in Chinese medicine, of further ill-health).

In babies, the most common causes are:

  • An undeveloped digestive system striving – and failing – to match the demands of the genes forcing growth
  • Other destabilising factors include infections, immunisations, parental emotional distress and, later, teething, all of which may introduce more Heat. If one can identify which is the cause – in other words, the baby began to produce signs of food accumulation and has never been well since which episode – the right treatment can make a huge difference
baby crying from food accumulation
Food accumulation causes sleep deprivation
  • Feeding too often: insufficient time for food to pass into and through the intestines before the next feed (eg from constant or too frequent breast-feeding or being fed on demand)
  • Too much raw, uncooked, cold, chilled or otherwise indigestible food. (Remember, we’re talking about babies and small children here. Adults may easily digest food that a child cannot. Teenagers, moreover, often wilfully ignore good advice!)
  • Too much food at a time: over-eating!


Onset? May, in susceptible babies, originate from being given too much food, (usually milk) even just once or repeatedly over a few meals.

Two types of accumulation disorder: EXCESS and DEFICIENT.

(To see what ‘excess’ and ‘deficient’ mean, click


In children the excess type of food accumulation occurs because the amount of food eaten exceeds the child’s digestive system’s capacity to deal with it and which reacts with force:

  • Stools are irregular, foul-smelling, can be dry, powdery, hard, difficult to pass
  • Distended abdomen, can be hard
  • Stools, in mild cases, may be green and smell sour
  • Stools, in severe cases, are foul-smelling, sometimes explosive
  • Vomits milk or food
  • Cheeks are red (teething can worsen the condition): may be greenish round the mouth. NB red cheeks here are a sign of excess heat being generated where it shouldn’t. Conversely, a child that usually – in health – has red cheeks may be more susceptible to food accumulation and its cries of discomfort ignored because its red cheeks are otherwise regarded as healthy!
  • Moody, irritable, hard to please, demanding
  • Cries noisily, insistently, demandingly
  • Sleep disturbed or difficult, waking from heat or discomfort when the body has been still awhile
  • Large appetite – but see next point …
  • Abdominal pain is worse after eating, worse from pressure, improves after stool
  • If severe, there may be mild fever with perspiration at night
  • Nasal phlegm
  • Pulse at wrist: full, wiry, slippery
  • Tongue coating: thick, greasy
  • This excess type can also occur because of structural problems, such as kinks in the bowels or other entanglements. If so, sleep may have been painful and difficult from soon after birth.
  • If the child also has a lingering infection (such as from a cough or cold or other pathogen), the food accumulation symptoms may vary with how vigorously the child’s immune system is fighting the pathogen


Why so Important to diagnose this is ‘Excess’-type Food Accumulation?

The strength of the symptoms demonstrates how much Qi the baby or child has. Strong symptoms imply that the child has enough energy to expel the faeces, assuming there is no structural blockage. This is a bit like a high-powered pump able to force fluids through a blocked drain.

Using Qi to unblock accumulation of food
Man wearing gas mask holding torch inside tunnel

Here it is important to dissipate the excess energy and direct it downwards with appropriate acupuncture.

Stool softening medications may help though not for the first bowel movement but with subsequent movements, but the main challenge is to prevent Heat building up.

‘Tonifying’-type acupuncture here might be counter-productive, worsening the symptoms.

The right acupuncture for accumulation of food can be astonishingly beneficial and often quick to act.


The deficient type of accumulation of food happens because the child’s digestive system is unable to cope with even a little food:

  • Can start after a long period of ‘excess’ type accumulation, which has weakened the digestive system, or from over-stimulating the child’s system with stimulant laxatives, so exhausting it
  • Stools are ‘irregular’, meaning they come at irregular intervals, and in no way resemble ‘regulation’ sausage-shaped stools
  • Stools are not usually foul-smelling, though they may be oily or with undigested food particles in them
  • Abdomen may feel hard and distended but the baby usually likes gentle rubbing and pressure on it, even warmth
  • Complexion is pale, sometimes yellowish
  • Small appetite: may vomit food back up (because the Stomach’s descending function is depleted)
  • Cry is weak, plaintive, needy
  • Little physical strength
  • Constipation for long periods of time
  • Sleep – can wake often for short periods at night then need to sleep more than usual during the day
  • Pulse at wrist: deficient, weak, thin
  • Tongue: tongue body is pale, its coating white and thick


Why so Important to diagnose this is ‘Deficient’-type Food Accumulation?

The lack of vehemence in the symptoms suggests the child may not have enough Qi to expel the faeces so here it is important to tonify and support the child’s energy.

Dissipating or sedating technique here would almost certainly further weaken the child.

Theory suggests that overuse of stimulating laxatives here may also exhaust the child. Stool softening medications may help a little but are more ‘stuff’ for the digestive system to cope with.

The right acupuncture, repeated regularly over a period, can gradually strengthen the child, enabling its digestive system to return to normal. Also, the parents need to make the right choices with food and feeding (easier said than done, I agree, with an exhausted, picky child).

More About Deficiency

Deficiency implies weakness in the child’s Spleen and Stomach energies (the Chinese medical explanation for a weak digestion).

In babies and small children their digestive systems are still fragile, sometimes because of inherited factors. (For more on how Chinese medicine understands inheritied factors, see Jing-essence.)

A baby's digestion is fragile, easily disrupted by the wrong food or feeding regime
Be Careful with your baby’s digestion!

Further damage comes after too many excess-type accumulation disorder episodes or indeed from other ‘syndromes’ which ‘release’ their symptom-picture and ‘transform’ it into food accumulation symptoms.

Other causes include Western medications varying from analgesics given too early, powerful bowel stimulants that force movement on a weakened system, and vaccinations that go ‘underground’ – ie produce no immediate feverish reaction, but emerge later as heat where unwanted, in this case in the bowels.

‘Transforming’ Energy

This idea that one thing transforms into another is an important concept in Chinese medicine. For example, in health, Qi takes many forms and easily transforms between them. Currently I’m thinking about what I’ll write next in this sentence, but in a few minutes I’ll be thinking what to have for breakfast. Later I’ll be going for a walk. The energy comes from the same place, but manifests in different ways: it ‘transforms’ into what needs to be done next.

If ill, my body produces symptoms which, because they don’t transform – they get ‘stuck’ – cause me pain and discomfort. Suppose I do nothing but wait? – they’ll persist for a while, then get better or worse, often depending on what I do about them. If my body can resolve them, it gets better: they were, after all, its first option, its preferred method of dealing with them, even if sore.


If I suppress them (for much more on this, click on Suppression) then they are likely to disappear for a while but – and this depends on how powerfully and for how long I suppress them – may re-emerge in another form, often related to the acupuncture channels along which the original pain occurred, or via a related zang-fu organ.

In other words, if my energy fails to find a solution in the best way it knows how (the original symptoms were the expression of that ‘best’ way) it is forced to produce symptoms in a less beneficial way. This easily becomes chronic, especially if further suppressed. Many conditions are successfully suppressed with modern Western medicine, and we use it willingly for this, but there are always – eventually –  secondary or undesirable symptoms.

This is where, for practitioners of Chinese medicine, it gets interesting: like a detective you are searching for explanations and solutions that are not necessarily obvious to practitioners of Western medicine. (As you may imagine, this is a large, complicated and controversial subject!)

Anyhow, this is all by way of saying that knowing how or when something began can be important.

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Examples of Foods that may cause or worsen Food Accumulation (excess OR deficient type)

Most adults realise that cooking food makes it easier to digest. Also, that eating warm food as opposed to cold or chilled food is more comfortable.

(If you don’t believe me, ask old people, whose digestions have become more fragile and who, long experienced, can tell you what works and what doesn’t!)

This applies even more so in young digestive systems. So, although you may be at your wit’s end concerning what to give your child, try to avoid – at least until the child’s digestion shows no weakness:

  • Cold-type foods
  • Cold or chilled food (including ice-cream and lollipops)
  • Raw food (eg fruit)
  • Unripe food
  • Indigestible food or food that needs to be chewed well before swallowing – this includes cooked brown rice, as opposed to cooked white rice – and too many brown or ‘wholemeal’ foods. Too much flour from grains, too early, may causes problems (eg in bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes and quick and junk food). Of course, too much refined food is also a problem. And often, ‘a little sugar helps the medicine go down’. [‘Little’ means a lot less less than a spoonful.]
food for kids that causes food accumulation
Delicious but REALLY! – Not good for baby!
  • Rich food (think of all the rich, creamy foods that go with Christmas or big religious festivals)
  • Sweet food


In excess style accumulation of food, do not give heating type food.

If the above foods are eaten by the child (often very willingly eaten!) and don’t pass through the digestive system smoothly, they sit around and, like new-mown grass on a compost heap, start to decay, releasing heat. That heat dries and inflames, causing obstruction, rashes, tempers and insomnia.

Treatment of Accumulation disorder with acupuncture:

Various points on hands, arms, back, abdomen and legs. Needle length for babies – a few millimetres only.

The aim, for excess, is to:

  • Move the bowels
  • Clear Heat
  • ‘Descend’ energy


Such points include Bladder 25; Stomach 25, 36, 37, 39; Ren 12; Sifeng: with dissipative/sedative technique. In otherwise healthy babies, usually needles do not need to be retained for long.

Normally as the (excess-type) baby learns to walk and run, there is some improvement, except at night. This is because movement helps to dissipate Heat and moves Qi, so moving the faeces.

One treatment will not cure this. It may need repeated, regular treatment over a period of weeks, perhaps twice a week, then occasionally (eg monthly) to support.

The aim, for deficiency, is to:

  • ‘tonify’ or support the Spleen and Stomach energies


Such points include Stomach 36, Spleen 3, Ren 12, Bladder 20, 21: with tonification. Again, no need to retain needles: a small, frequent stimulus is often enough, providing the parents adopt healthy food choices for their baby.

With deficiency, too much exercise is exhausting and potentially weakening, leading to more extreme symptoms of deficiency accumulation. However, some exercise is vital for health.

How often to treat food accumulation?

A little treatment, (don’t use all the points indicated each time, and vary them with other supportive points, not listed above) regularly, perhaps weekly, with warmth on the abdomen at Ren 12; give this treatment over a period of months, and then monthly.

Good treatment will strengthen the child, and sometimes even lead to excess-type accumulation! If so, educating the parents in what to give the child will be very important: warm foods that helped during deficiency may become too heating for the child during excess!

Other treatment: China has a long tradition of Tuina, a kind of massage, somewhat like Shiatsu.

the right treatment makes baby happy!

Food choices: usually you must educate the parents! Only lucky ones were brought up in the Chinese cultural traditions which handed down food awareness to them.

Also, be aware that not all parents can easily adopt better foods and eating patterns for their child, owing to financial constraints or lack of knowledge or cooking know-how.

Sometimes it is best to change one food at a time, over a period of weeks, though this prolongs the time needed for improvement, even with acupuncture.

Query re Stomach 36 and Ren 12

Conception Vessel 12 - Ren 12
Conception Vessel 12 – Copyright

You may wonder why these two points occur in both sets of points, ie both for tonifying and for sedating. The reason is that acupuncture has a regulating effect and although these points are mostly used to tonify Qi and Blood, they can be used to steady or mildly disperse Qi without harm.

An analogy might be in your motor car when the engine is mainly used for powering forward motion but can be used to slow the car down from high speed without using the brakes, by taking the foot off the accelerator with the engine still in gear.

Using a lower gear, engaged via synchromesh (or by double-declutching, as my mother taught me on 1950s farm tractors lacking synchromesh!) increases the braking power of the engine.

Worried as to whether your car has synchromesh? Don’t be! All modern cars have it. Vehicles built pre-WW2 may lack it.

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