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Constipation in children

Constipation in children is a common problem, and is not very easy for parents to deal with. The good news is that it usually clears up with time. Parents often worry that it means there is something seriously wrong, but this is very seldom the case. Constipation does seem to make bedwetting more likely, and one study found that improving constipation cured or significantly improved bedwetting in 6 out of 10 children (New England Journal of Medicine 2009;360:1429–36). 

What is normal?

Normal healthy children vary in how often they have their bowels open. Most children aged 1–4 years pass faeces once or twice a day. However, some children have their bowels open three times a day, whereas others have a bowel motion every other day. All this is quite normal. And a few perfectly healthy children have their bowels open once every 3 days.

The size and consistency of the faeces will vary, depending on what your child has been eating and drinking.

How do I know my child is constipated?

Signs of constipation are:

  • your child seems to be straining hard to have a bowel movement
  • having a bowel movement is painful – suspect this if your child seems to be trying to hold the bowel motion in (e.g. by crossing the legs or sitting up on the heels) or if your child seems frightened of using the toilet
  • the stools are very hard and dry.

Causes of constipation in children

Not enough fluid and fibre in the diet is probably the commonest cause.
 
Anal fissure is another common cause. An anal fissure is a crack in the skin at the edge of the anus, and this makes a bowel movement very painful. Often the problem will have started after a the child was unwell with a viral infection. During the infection he/she might not have taken in enough fluids, so the faeces became dry and difficult to pass. The hard, dry faeces are then likely to have scratched the anus, causing the fissure.
 
Worries about using toilets, for example at nursery school or school where there might be a lack of privacy, can trigger a period of constipation.
 
A tummy upset, in which the child had diarrhoea that was difficult to control, can sometimes result in constipation afterwards. This could be because the child is worried about not being able to hold faeces in.
 
Emotional upset is another possible trigger – for example, if there has been a lot of family stress recently.
 
Medicines are not a common cause of constipation in children (unlike in adults), but some cough mixtures can have this effect.
 
Cows’ milk allergy seems to be a fashionable diagnosis at the moment for all sorts of gut problems in children. In a few children it may be the cause of constipation. If other people in the family have asthma or eczema, it is worth considering. Constipation sometimes occurs when an infant is switched from breast milk to cows’ milk or formula milk.
 

How to help your child

Talk to your doctor if your child is less than 1 year old. If your child is over 1 year old, here are a few things you can try.

Check your child’s position on the toilet. Provide a child’s toilet seat (which fits over the normal seat), because it will make your child’s hip bend at the optimum angle for having a bowel movement. The best posture for passing faeces is for the child to sit in the middle of the toilet with the legs apart and the heels flat on a footstool (New England Journal of Medicine 2009;360:1429–36). He or she should be told not to rush or push. 

Encourage the child to drink plenty of fluids. Avoid sweet and fizzy drinks because they are bad for teeth. Offer a variety of drinks, such as water, diluted fruit juices and milk. (In some children, too much milk can have the opposite effect, making constipation worse.) Prune, pear and apple juices contain a sugar called sorbitol that is particularly good at keeping stools soft. 
 
Increase the amount of fibre in the diet. This can be difficult. A survey showed that 29–48% of children with constipation are ‘fussy eaters’, and 47% have a poor appetite. Eating often improves once the constipation has been dealt with. Meanwhile, you could explain to your child that you are changing the diet to make the faeces soft and easier to pass, but don’t make it into an issue. Give the whole family the same foods. Aim for five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. There is a list of high- and medium-fibre foods in the section on improving constipation. With luck, this list contains some foods that your child will like.
 
Don’t exclude milk from the diet without talking to your doctor, it could result in nutritional deficiencies. About 50% of children with true cows’ milk allergy are also allergic to soya protein, so changing to soya might not be a simple solution.
 
Provide breakfast, and serve it early. For many children, breakfast seems to trigger a bowel movement. (This is called the gastro-colic reflex.) If you serve breakfast early, there will be plenty of time for the child to go to the toilet. Otherwise, because of the rush to get ready for school, the child may hold the stool in and then be reluctant to use the toilet at school.
 
Don’t give your child laxatives without talking to your doctor or health visitor. There are several different sorts of laxatives. Let your doctor or health visitor choose the most appropriate type if necessary.
 

When to see your doctor

You should see your doctor if your child is under 1 year old. If your child is older, you could try the measures outlined above for a couple of weeks, and then see your doctor if they have not solved the problem.
 
Another reason for seeing the doctor promptly is if you find yourself becoming angry with your child about it. A child with constipation can make you feel very frustrated, but the constipation is not the child’s fault, and is not being done deliberately. It is important to be patient.
 
The main reason for getting help is that constipation has to be sorted out, because if it continues for a long time the rectum enlarges. Then your child will miss a feeling that he/she needs to have a bowel movement, and the muscles of the bowel will not work properly to push the faeces out. Instead, liquid waste will dribble out from around the faeces, and there will be soiling of underwear. Then you will think that diarrhoea is the trouble, when in fact constipation is still the actual problem.
 

What your doctor can do

Your doctor will check that there is nothing physically wrong with your child. Your doctor might then decide that a laxative would be a good idea. Several types of laxative are available (see our section on improving constipation). It is usual to start with lactulose to make the faeces soft, but other types may be needed. The laxative is often continued for about 3 months, and then very gradually reduced.

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Tuesday, April 5th 2011

 


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Comments on this article

Posted by Optional on 23/09/2013 at 08:23

Nice article. with this symptoms if blood come with stool what should we do?

Posted by praneel on 21/09/2010 at 04:25, Hong Kong

hi my son is 2 years n five months.& he is being suffering from constipation since he was 2yr old and its on and off.& during that time of period he has been taking lactolose and other laxatives and xylocaine jelly 2% and anusol ointment ,occasionaly when he needs it. but i want his constipation get better so any suggestions are welcome coz i want to treat the problem quickly as i dont want this to last a lifetime as he is a very small child and suffer badly. thanks for quick reply. will be appreciated he also has a proper diet please any one have suggestions as none of thes work

Posted by kirsty mcmillan on 16/01/2010 at 10:51, United Kingdom

my daughter who is three has constipation with overflow or (chronic constipation) she is on 6 movicol and 5 mils of senna every night. she has had this prob for almost a year and a half has been admitted to hospital for a week but nothing has been done. the medicine she is on is not working and she has not done proper bowel movement for almost two months, is there anything else a can try

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Fascinating facts

An average person on a typical Western diet passes about 150 g (5 oz) of faeces each day. Faeces consist of about one-third solids and two-thirds water

The solid matter in faeces is cellulose from vegetables, dead cells cast off from the lining of the gut, bacteria, some salts and pigment from bile (which gives the brown colour)

Most of the waste matter from food is passed out in the faeces within 72 hours, but in healthy people up to 30% may remain in the colon for a week or more

Defecation is a very efficient process, normally taking only 10 seconds. Presumably it has to be quick - animals (and primitive man) cannot run from a predator easily if they are in the middle of defecating. This is probably why it is even quicker when we are frightened

In the USA, more than $800 million is spent on laxatives each year

Constipation results in more than 2–5 million visits to doctors in the USA each year

About 4,500,000 people in the USA say they are constipated most or all of the time (National Health Interview Survey)

In a UK survey, 6% of people said they had suffered from constipation in the past year, 13% had some difficulty in passing their faeces at least once a month, and 19% took laxatives at some time

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