Constipation in children is a common problem. A constipated child has infrequent bowel movements or hard, dry stools.
Common causes include early toilet training and changes in diet. Fortunately, most cases of constipation in children are temporary.
Encouraging your child to make simple dietary changes — such as eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and drinking more water — can go a long way toward alleviating constipation. If your child's doctor approves, it may be possible to treat a child's constipation with laxatives.
Signs and symptoms of constipation in children may include:
- Less than three bowel movements a week
- Bowel movements that are hard, dry and difficult to pass
- Pain while having a bowel movement
- Stomach pain
- Traces of liquid or pasty stool in your child's underwear — a sign that stool is backed up in the rectum
- Blood on the surface of hard stool
If your child fears that having a bowel movement will hurt, he or she may try to avoid it. You may notice your child crossing his or her legs, clenching his or her buttocks, twisting his or her body, or making faces when attempting to hold stool.
When to see a doctor
Constipation in children usually isn't serious. However, chronic constipation may lead to complications or signal an underlying condition. Take your child to a doctor if the constipation lasts longer than two weeks or is accompanied by:
- Not eating
- Blood in the stool
- Abdominal swelling
- Weight loss
- Pain during bowel movements
- Part of the intestine coming out of the anus (rectal prolapse)
Constipation most commonly occurs when waste or stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract, causing the stool to become hard and dry.
Many factors can contribute to constipation in children, including:
Withholding. Your child may ignore the urge to have a bowel movement because he or she is afraid of the toilet or doesn't want to take a break from play. Some children withhold when they're away from home because they're uncomfortable using public toilets.
Painful bowel movements caused by large, hard stools also may lead to withholding. If it hurts to poop, your child may try to avoid a repeat of the distressing experience.
- Toilet training issues. If you begin toilet training too soon, your child may rebel and hold in stool. If toilet training becomes a battle of wills, a voluntary decision to ignore the urge to poop can quickly become an involuntary habit that's tough to change.
- Changes in diet. Not enough fiber-rich fruits and vegetables or fluid in your child's diet may cause constipation. One of the more common times for children to become constipated is when they're switching from an all-liquid diet to one that includes solid foods.
- Changes in routine. Any changes in your child's routine — such as travel, hot weather or stress — can affect bowel function. Children are also more likely to experience constipation when they first start school outside of the home.
- Medications. Certain antidepressants and various other drugs can contribute to constipation.
- Cow's milk allergy. An allergy to cow's milk or consuming too many dairy products (cheese and cow's milk) sometimes leads to constipation.
- Family history. Children who have family members who have experienced constipation are more likely to develop constipation. This may be due to shared genetic or environmental factors.
- Medical conditions. Rarely, constipation in children indicates an anatomic malformation, a metabolic or digestive system problem, or another underlying condition.
Constipation in children is more likely to affect kids who:
- Are sedentary
- Don't eat enough fiber
- Don't drink enough fluids
- Take certain medications, including some antidepressants
- Have a medical condition affecting the anus or rectum
- Have a neurological disorder
Although constipation in children can be uncomfortable, it usually isn't serious. If constipation becomes chronic, however, complications may include:
- Painful breaks in the skin around the anus (anal fissures)
- Rectal prolapse, when the rectum comes out of the anus
- Stool withholding
- Avoiding bowel movements because of pain, which causes impacted stool to collect in the colon and rectum and leak out (encopresis)
To help prevent constipation in children:
Offer your child high-fiber foods. A diet rich in fiber can help your child's body form soft, bulky stool. Serve your child more high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole-grain cereals and breads. If your child isn't used to a high-fiber diet, start by adding just several grams of fiber a day to prevent gas and bloating.
The recommended intake for dietary fiber is 14 grams for every 1,000 calories in your child's diet.
For younger children, this translates to an intake of about 20 grams of dietary fiber a day. For adolescent girls and young women, it's 29 grams a day. And for adolescent boys and young men, it's 38 grams a day.
- Encourage your child to drink plenty of fluids. Water is often the best.
- Promote physical activity. Regular physical activity helps stimulate normal bowel function.
- Create a toilet routine. Regularly set aside time after meals for your child to use the toilet. If necessary, provide a footstool so that your child is comfortable sitting on the toilet and has enough leverage to release a stool.
- Remind your child to heed nature's call. Some children get so wrapped up in play that they ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. If such delays occur often, they can contribute to constipation.
- Be supportive. Reward your child's efforts, not results. Give children small rewards for trying to move their bowels. Possible rewards include stickers or a special book or game that's only available after (or possibly during) toilet time. And don't punish a child who has soiled his or her underwear.
- Review medications. If your child is taking a medication that causes constipation, ask his or her doctor about other options.