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Constipation in children

How to prevent and treat it.

Constipation is a common childhood complaint. And while it doesn't generally pose a serious threat to a child's health, it may understandably cause parents some concern.

Fortunately, constipation is generally fairly easy to treat.

Symptoms of constipation

Some signs your child may be constipated are similar to the ones for adults. They include:

  • Fewer than two bowel movements a week.
  • Hard or dry stools.
  • Trouble passing stools.

Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, extreme reluctance to use the toilet, abdominal bloating, stomach pain or tiredness. Your child might also involuntarily soil his or her underwear, which is a sign that stool has backed up into the rectum.

Common causes

There are several reasons why a child can become constipated. Two common causes are not drinking enough fluids and not getting enough fiber.

Holding it may also bring on constipation. This is more common in older children who may hold it because they don't want to stop playing to go to the bathroom or because they don't like public restrooms. Once going becomes hard or painful, they might continue to hold it.

What to do

The first thing to do for a constipated child is to look at lifestyle factors that may be contributing to the problem. For example, make sure the child is:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids, such as water.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating plenty of fiber. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits are all good sources. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that both children and adults generally don't get enough fiber.

In some cases, a doctor may recommend an enema or a laxative for a constipated child. However, it's important to talk to a doctor before giving such treatments. Laxatives, in particular, can be dangerous for children.

You should also take children to the doctor if they scream or cry during a bowel movement, or have blood in their stools.

However, bowel habits may differ for each child. If they don't go every day, it doesn't necessarily mean they're constipated.

Healthy bowel habits from the start

Another way to help prevent constipation in children is to encourage healthy bowel habits, such as not holding it, from the beginning. If you have a child who is approaching the age for toilet training, here are some tips on how to do that from the American Academy of Family Physicians:

  • Familiarize your child with the bathroom and toilet.
  • Have set times for sitting on the toilet (such as after eating).
  • Give a reward for bowel movements until your child is completely trained.
  • Don't get angry if your child has a soiling accident.

Reviewed 3/22/2023

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