Constipation in Children

Introduction

There are several meanings to constipation. The most common meaning refers to infrequent bowel movements. This can cause the bowel movements  to be hard and dry and difficult to pass. It may also mean a decrease in volume of the stool, straining to have a bowel movement or an incomplete bowel movement. For children, it is a common problem and usually only temporary, so there is no cause for parents to be concerned.

The main culprits for constipation in children are not eating enough fiber, not drinking enough fluids or getting enough exercise and also when a child ignores the urge to have a bowel movement. Some children are embarrassed to use a public bathroom, are unwilling to stop their play time, or may fear a lack of confidence when not with a parent. Medications or other diseases may also cause constipation.

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Symptoms of Constipation

  • no bowel movement for several days or daily bowel movements that are hard and dry
  • cramping abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weight loss liquid or solid, clay-like stool in the child’s underwear–a sign that stool is backed up in the rectum

Constipation can make a bowel movement painful, so the child may try to prevent having one. Clenching buttocks, rocking up and down on toes, and turning red in the face are signs of trying to hold in a bowel movement.

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Treatments for Constipation

Treatment depends on the child’s age and the severity of the problem. Often eating more fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereal), drinking more liquids, and getting more exercise will solve the problem. Sometimes a child may need an enema to remove the stool or a laxative to soften it or prevent a future episode. However, laxatives can be dangerous to children and should be given only with a doctor’s approval.

Cause for Concern

Although constipation is usually harmless, it can be a sign or cause of a more serious problem. A child should see a doctor if episodes of constipation last longer than 3 weeks.

  • the child is unable to participate in normal activities.
  • small, painful tears appear in the skin around the anus.
  • a small amount of the intestinal lining is pushed out of the anus (hemorrhoids). normal pushing is not enough to expel stool.
  • liquid or soft stool leaks out of the anus.

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Organizations to Assist You

American Academy of Pediatrics National Headquarters
141 Northwest Point Boulevard
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098
Phone: (847) 434-4000
Fax: (847) 434-8000
Internet: www.aap.org

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal
Disorders (IFFGD) P.O. Box 17864
Milwaukee, WI 53217
Phone: 1-888-964-2001 or (414) 964-1799
Fax: (414) 964-7176
Email: iffgd@iffgd.org
Internet: www.iffgd.org

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders
P.O. Box 17864
Milwaukee, WI 53217
Tel: (414) 964-1799
Intestinal Disease Foundation
1323 Forbes Avenue, Suite 200
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Tel: (412) 261-5888
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Research on Constipation in Children

The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse collects resource information on digestive diseases for the Combined Health Information Database (CHID). CHID is a database produced by health-related agencies of the Federal Government. The CHID database located on the World Wide Web at http://nih.gov, provides titles, abstracts, and availability information for health information and health education resources. See the results of our CHID research on “Constipation in Children,” June 16, 2004.

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