What is constipation in children?

Constipation is when a child has very hard stools, and has fewer bowel movements than he or she normally does. It is a very common GI (gastrointestinal) problem.

Signs that a child has constipation include:

  • Having fewer bowel movements than normal. Constipation is often defined as having fewer than 3 bowel movements a week. The number of bowel movements may be different for each child. But a change in what is normal for your child may mean there is a problem.
  • Passing stool that is hard and sometimes large
  • Having bowel movements that are difficult or painful to push out

What causes constipation in a child?

Stool gets hard and dry when the large intestine (colon) takes in (absorbs) too much water.

Normally, as food moves through the colon, the colon absorbs water while it makes stool. Muscle movements (contractions) push the stool toward the rectum. When the stool gets to the rectum, most of the water has been soaked up. The stool is now solid.

If your child has constipation, the colon’s muscle movements are too slow. This makes the stool move through the colon too slowly. The colon absorbs too much water. The stool gets very hard and dry.

Once a child becomes constipated, the problem can quickly get worse. Hard, dry stools can be painful to push out. So the child may stop using the bathroom because it hurts. Over time, the colon will not be able to sense that stool is there.

There are many reasons why a child may become constipated. Some common diet and lifestyle causes include:

What are the symptoms of constipation?

How is constipation treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment may include diet and lifestyle changes, such as:

Diet changes

Often making changes in your child’s diet will help constipation. Help your child to eat more fiber by:

  • Adding more fruits and vegetables
  • Adding more whole-grain cereals and breads. Check the nutrition labels on food packages for foods that have more fiber.

Other diet changes that may help include:

  • Having your child drink more fluids, especially water
  • Limiting fast foods and junk foods that are often high in fats. Offer more well-balanced meals and snacks instead.
  • Limiting drinks with caffeine, such as soda and tea
  • Limiting whole milk as directed by your child’s healthcare provider

It’s also a good idea to have your child eat meals on a regular schedule. Eating a meal will often cause a bowel movement within 30 to 60 minutes. Serve breakfast early. This will give your child time to have a bowel movement at home before rushing off to school.

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