8 Causes And Effective Treatments For Constipation In Children

Image: iStock


Did you know that around 25% of children who visit a pediatric gastroenterologist are constipated (1)? Constipation in children is so common that it is prevalent among 3% worldwide (2). The problem causes extreme discomfort, and when neglected can lead to other health complications. MomJunction tells you about the various types of constipation, the reasons behind the problem, and how you can help your child overcome it.

What Is Constipation?

Constipation is a condition where the individual has irregular bowel movements. A child is said to be constipated if he:

  • Has three or less than three bowel movements in a week.
  • Has abdominal discomfort, pain or bloating.
  • Painful defecation.
  • Passes hard stools

Chronic constipation in kids may develop if they also display the following symptoms over a period of eight weeks.

  • Has one or more episodes of fecal incontinence in a week.
  • Displays behavior that suggests retention of stool fearing pain.
  • Defecating large amounts of stool

These symptoms are usually common in children aged four or above and are toilet trained. When neglected, constipation can become chronic and lead to other health problems such as fecal incontinence, hemorrhoids, anal fissure and rectal prolapse.

Constipation prevents toxins from leaving the body.

Types of Constipation

We all have issues with regular bowel movements every once in a while. When passing of stool becomes highly irregular over a specific period and follows a pattern that affects other aspects of your child’s life, it can be constipation.

1. Acute constipation:

Acute constipation is temporary. So if your child has bowel problems once in a while, it is okay. Even if your child, aged less than 10, does not pass stool for three days, there is nothing to worry about, as the body comes back to its normal rhythm in time.

2. Chronic constipation:

When the colon is unable to digest the food and eliminate the waste from the body regularly, it is chronic constipation. Chronic constipation is ongoing and can lead to bigger health problems when not addressed. The good news is that it can be treated.

3. Idiopathic constipation:

Idiopathic constipation is like other idiopathic illnesses, the cause of which is not known. There are many reasons why your child may be constipated. Idiopathic constipation is usually acute or temporary and goes away in a few days. Constipation can also indicate an underlying medical condition, although that is rare.

Causes Of Constipation In Children

Constipation is a rather painful condition for a child to deal with. It has a significant effect on his day-to-day life and should be treated with urgency. To treat constipation, you need to know what causes it.

1. Dietary habits:

Dietary factors have a significant role to play in the body’s metabolism. What goes in comes out, right? But if the child has not eaten enough to give the body any energy, then he may not pass stool for days.

Dehydration or lack of enough water in the body can cause idiopathic constipation.

A change in regular diet may also cause constipation, as the body needs to adjust to the new foods that it gets. Also, kids who eat a lot of sugar or sugary foods are prone to be constipated.

2. Low fiber diet:

A low fiber diet makes it harder for the body to digest the food as it should. Fiber softens the stool and helps in its smooth movement through the intestine.

3. Withholding the bowel movement:

Controlling the urge to pass stool can cause constipation. When your little one withholds stool, the colon will absorb the excess liquid, and his stool turns hard and difficult to pass. Children usually withhold stools when they:

  • Feel stressed, possibly due to potty training
  • Do not want to break playtime
  • Feel uncomfortable using public toilets
  • Worried about having a painful bowel movement

4. Medications:

Some medications have constipation as a side effect. They are:

  • Antacids used to neutralize stomach acids containing calcium and aluminum.
  • Narcotics used to treat severe pain.
  • Anticholinergics for treating muscle spasms of intestines.
  • Medicines to treat depression.

5. Functional gastrointestinal disorders:

Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders develop when the GI tract alters the way it works. As a result, the colon or anal muscles move the stool slowly, leading to constipation. The condition might develop when:

  • Infants transit from breastfeeding to solid foods.
  • Parents potty train the toddlers.
  • Children start going to school, where they avoid using public toilets.

6. Irritable bowel syndrome:

It is a functional GI disorder that also causes constipation in children.

7. Emotional problems:

Sometimes, a change in the surroundings, routine and family situations (divorce or separation, death in the household, etc.) can cause emotional turmoil and stress.

Also, potty training can be stressful. The child may have had traumatic experiences of visiting the washroom alone or imagined something that may prevent him from going to the toilet.

Stress and fear are two emotions that can cause constipation in children. Address their emotions, and you’ll relieve them of their constipation.

8. Other disorders:

The following diseases can also cause constipation in children, but in rare cases:

  • Metabolic diseases
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Malformations of rectum or anus
  • Spinal cord abnormalities
  • Celiac disease
  • Diabetes
  • Lead toxicity
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Hirschsprung’s disease

Exposure to lead or lead poisoning can also cause constipation. In most cases, the condition can be dealt with necessary medications or even home remedies. In others, treatment may be required to address the underlying cause, which causes constipation.

Symptoms Of Constipation In Children

Constipated children display signs similar to those of adults. Watch out for these symptoms to figure out if your child is suffering from constipation.

  • Fever or irregular bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain
  • Hard and dry stools, which are difficult to pass
  • Pain when passing stools, expresses discomfort
  • Blood in stool
  • Change in posture, fidgeting when the child has to go to the toilet – your kid may clench the abdomen or buttocks, walk awkwardly
  • More soiling accidents
  • Your child may be withholding stool by sitting with his legs crossed
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Changes in behavior, your child could be more irritable
  • Feeling ‘off’, or sick in general

Irregular bowel movements may eventually lead to loss of appetite and change in eating habits.

When To See A Doctor

Constipation in children is not uncommon and can be dealt with basic medication or home remedies. However, you may have to see a doctor if your child also has:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent blood in the stool
  • Intestinal protrusion
  • Painful tears around the anus

Diagnosis Of Constipation

If your child only defecates three times or less every week, it every week is a sign of constipation. To identify the underlying cause of his condition, go for a diagnosis by a medical professional. Your doctor may:

  • Do a complete physical examination to determine if the child is constipated.
  • Review your child’s complete medical history.
  • Ask about any recent, significant changes in his life.

In addition to the general checkup and consultation, the pediatrician may also recommend:

  • Blood tests to check for any infections or medical abnormalities that can cause poor or slow bowel movements.
  • X-ray of the abdomen may be taken based on the child’s medical history. An x-ray also indicates what’s obstructing stool movement in the colon.

Treatment: How To Relieve Constipation In Children?

Primary treatment of constipation usually involves in enabling smoother bowel movements using laxatives. This is in the case of acute and idiopathic constipation, where no other medical condition is at play. In the case of constipation due to a health problem, the focus is on treating that.

Here is how you can help a child with constipation with medical treatments –

1. Laxatives:

A laxative can be medications, foods or other compounds that soften the stool and make it easier for it to pass through the colon. Use laxatives prescribed by the doctor and avoid OTC medicines. Excessive dosages of these medications can lead to loose motions and leave the child dehydrated.

2. Unplugging the colon:

Unplugging may not treat constipation completely but can help flush out the waste efficiently, thus cleaning the colon. Sometimes, what you think to be constipation could just be an obstruction in the colon, which can be cleared by using enemas or polyethylene glycol. You can:

  • Mix polyethylene glycol in water and give it to your child to drink. Make sure that the dosage you give is just right to clean the colon.
  • An enema is an invasive method that your child could be uncomfortable with. This should be used as the last resort if other laxatives do not work.
  • Sometimes, long-term usage of laxatives may be recommended to remove any pain that the child experiences when he passes stool.

Colon evacuation, followed by a change in dietary habits, should help your child to get back into a more healthy routine without any issues with his bowel movements.

In addition to these treatment options, you can also try a few natural remedies.

Natural Remedies For Constipation In Children

Constipation can often be treated at home with the help of natural compounds available in our food. But, what to give a child with constipation? In cases of idiopathic constipation, the home remedies that we discuss here will provide relief to the child.

However, if constipation is due to an underlying medical condition, give him foods such as potato, beans, apricot, whole grain foods, broccoli, plums, nuts, pears, apples, fig, flax seeds, guava, raisins, lemon juice, and spinach among other fiber-rich foods.

Home Remedies To Ease Constipation In Children

In addition to the diet and medications, here are a few quick home remedies to ease the bowel movement and relieve constipation in children. Try these remedies along with any medication and exercise recommended by the doctor.

  • Don’t rush your child’s time on the toilet. Rushing them or coaxing them will only add to the stress and worsen the condition.
  • Toilet training can be stressful for the toddler and can cause constipation. If that is the case, put toilet training on hold until the problem is resolved.
  • Try simple exercises that can help relieve them of discomfort. For example, make your child lie down on his back and gently stretch his legs backward onto the belly. This will work the abdominal muscles and ease bowel movement.
  • Massaging the child’s belly can help loosen the abdominal muscles and release the pressure.
  • Peddling the legs like riding a bicycle can also relieve any discomfort that your child has because of constipation.
  • A warm bath can soothe the tight muscles in the abdomen and ease bowel movements.

Tips to Prevent Constipation Naturally

Constipation can be prevented with simple changes in diet and lifestyle. Follow these tips, and you will teach your child the necessary habits that prevent constipation now or in his adult life.

1. Fiber rich food:

Give your child a diet that includes fruits and vegetables that have high fiber content. Children can be fussy when it comes to food, so changing to a high-fiber diet may not be as easy as it seems. You can make the transition easy by:

  • Including small portions of baked beans during breakfast or dinner.
  • Replacing chips and other unhealthy snacks with raisins or dried apricot.
  • Serving fruits instead of desserts. You could also try sweet yogurt for dessert.
  • High fiber cereals like oatmeal porridge can help.
  • Add bran to certain foods to make them a little grainy.

2.Drink water:

Children tend to skip drinking and eating in between play, which can leave them dehydrated. So make sure that your child drinks plenty of water, fruit juices and other health drinks as much as possible during the day. This softens the stool and makes it easier to pass.

3. Exercise:

Along with good food, ensure that your child also gets plenty of exercises to keep the body moving and loosen the tight muscles in the abdomen. Encourage your child to play outside, where he moves a lot. Let them participate in sports that help in burning calories and also boost metabolism.

4. Healthy bowel habits:

Establishing a regular toilet time early on can help prevent constipation. This will also work if your child is already constipated. Our body works like a clock and maintaining discipline will help it fall into a rhythm and follow a natural pattern, eventually eliminating constipation.

Here are a few things you can do to help your child develop healthy bowel habits.

  • Encourage regular toilet times. Your child should spend at least 30 minutes on the toilet, around five to 10 minutes after each meal, every day. They should be made to do that even if they do not have the urge to go.
  • Help them sit in the right posture on the toilet. Give them a foot stool or a step stool for supporting the legs and a book to keep them engaged. A footstool will also make them feel secure and remove any fears that they will fall into the toilet.
  • Use a timer to ensure that they are sitting there long enough after the meal. This will save you arguments too.
  • Reinforce positive behavior so that your child is encouraged to try it without you coaxing him into it.
  • Talk to your child to learn about their fears of using public toilets, at school or elsewhere. Find out what the problem is and see if you can do anything about it.
  • If your child is withholding stool due to pain, then use stool softeners to make it easier for him.

A healthy diet, combined with an active lifestyle is a great remedy for treating constipation. Follow these tips and constipation would be an unfamiliar concept soon.

Did you ever follow any diet for your child with constipation? Have any remedies to suggest for preventing the condition? Share them here.

Recommended Articles:

The following two tabs change content below.

Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more