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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:
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:
In rare cases, constipation can be caused by a larger physical problem. These physical issues can include:
Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They may include:
The symptoms of constipation can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Depending on how old your child is, you might be asked questions such as:
Your child’s provider may also want to do some tests to see if there are any problems. These tests may include:
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:
Often making changes in your child's diet will help constipation. Help your child to eat more fiber by:
Whole-wheat bread, granola bread, wheat bran muffins, whole-grain waffles, popcorn
Bran cereals, shredded wheat, oatmeal, granola, oat bran
100% bran cereal
Beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, green peas, acorn and butternut squash, spinach, potato with skin, avocado
Apples with peel, dates, papayas, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, pears, kiwis, strawberries, applesauce, raspberries, blackberries, raisins
Cooked prunes, dried figs
Peanut butter, nuts
Baked beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, lima beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, chili with beans, trail mix
Other diet changes that may help include:
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.
Having your child get more exercise can also help with constipation. Exercise helps with digestion. It helps the normal movements the intestines make to push food forward as it is digested. People who don’t move around much are often constipated. Have your child go outside and play rather than watch TV or do other indoor activities.
Try to get your child into a regular toilet habit. Have your child sit on the toilet at least twice a day for at least 10 minutes. Try to do this just after a meal. Be sure to make this a pleasant time. Don’t get mad at your child for not having a bowel movement. Use a reward system to make it fun. Give stickers or other small treats. Or make posters that show your child's progress.
In some cases these changes may not help. Or your child’s healthcare provider may detect another problem. If so, the provider may recommend using laxatives, stool softeners, or an enema. These products should only be used if recommended by your child's provider. Do not use them without talking with your child's provider first.
Constipation can be prevented by figuring out the times when it may occur, and making proper changes.
For instance, when babies start to eat solid food, constipation can result. This is because they don’t have enough fiber in their new diet. You can add fiber to your baby’s diet by giving pureed vegetables and fruits. Or try whole-wheat or multigrain cereals.
Constipation can also happen during toilet training. Children who do not like using a regular toilet may hold in their stool. This causes constipation.
All children should get the right amount of fiber and fluids. Other preventative measures include making sure your child has:
The same changes that can help treat constipation may also help to stop it from happening.
Call your child's healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about your child's bowel habits or patterns. Talk with your child's provider if your child:
Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.