What is constipation in children?
When the movements of the intestine are too slow and stool stays in the intestines too long, constipation happens. It can hurt to pass hard and dry stool, which can lead to your child resisting the urge to make a bowel movement if they are constipated.
Food moves through the colon after you eat, and the colon absorbs water from it and makes stool. By the time the stool gets to the rectum, most of the water is absorbed. The stool is eventually passed. Constipation is what happens when there’s too much water absorption.
Symptoms of constipation can include any of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive straining to have a bowel movement
- Feeling like all of the stool hasn’t passed
- Hard, lumpy, or dry stool
- Lack of appetite
- Less than three bowel movements per week
You may also look for physical signs of holding back stool. Children may clench their teeth or cross their legs in discomfort.
Constipation in children can have several causes, including:
- Anxiety or stress
- Lack of exercise
- Not drinking enough water or other fluids
- Not enough dietary fiber in what they eat
- Not wanting to stop playing to go to the bathroom
- Toilet training
Pay particular attention to changes in diet. Inevitable changes in what young children eat, such as starting on solids or switching from breast milk to formula, can cause constipation. Consistently eating foods that are high in fat and low in fiber, such as junk food and fast food, can also cause the condition.
Remedies for constipation in children
The following are some home remedies for constipation in kids.
Increasing dietary fiber and water
A diet that is low in fiber can contribute to constipation. The two types of dietary fiber are:
- Soluble fiber blends with water in the intestines and forms a gel-like substance. This type of fiber helps stabilize blood sugar.
- Insoluble fiber passes through the intestines without being absorbed. It increases the size of the stool and can help it pass more quickly.
Increasing the fiber in their diet should be the first step in treating symptoms of constipation in kids. Foods high in fiber include:
- Beans and legumes
- Bran cereals
- Chia seeds
- Fruits and nuts
In addition to increasing fiber, increasing water intake can help with constipation.
Getting more exercise
Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of constipation.
Physical activity helps with digestion by helping the intestinal muscles push stool through the digestive system. Have your child playing outside as often as possible, instead of staying indoors watching television or playing video games.
Maintaining good bowel habits
It can help to establish a toileting routine with your child. Have your child sit on the toilet at the same time twice a day for 10 minutes. It’s best to do this after a meal. Make this a pleasant, low-stress time. Encourage your child to use the bathroom but don’t put pressure on them. You might want to give them a small reward such as a sticker or treat.
If lifestyle changes don’t help resolve your child’s constipation, your pediatrician may recommend a stool softener or laxative. Don’t give your child a laxative without discussing it with a doctor first. There are several different types of laxatives pediatricians may suggest, including the following.
These laxatives work by increasing the weight of the stool, which makes it easier for the stool to pass through the digestive tract. They take two or three days to work. Bulk-forming laxatives are not absorbed and are considered safe for children. They may have unwanted side effects such as bloating, gas, and cramping. They may not always be effective.
Stool softeners contain docusate sodium. Give your child plenty of water with stool softeners. These laxatives should not be taken long-term unless you are advised to do so by your child’s doctor.
Lubricant laxatives such as mineral oil work by coating the stool and digestive tract with a waterproof layer. It keeps water in the stool which makes it softer and easier to pass.
Osmotic laxatives work by absorbing water into the bowel from surrounding tissues. This softens the stool and increases the action of the bowels. Prolonged use of osmotic laxatives can result in an electrolyte imbalance, which is when the fluid balance inside and outside of cells is not maintained.
Stimulant laxatives act on the intestinal wall. They increase the muscle contractions of the intestines. They can have unpleasant side effects like cramping. Like osmotic laxatives, prolonged use of stimulant laxatives can cause an electrolyte imbalance.
Side effects and further evaluation
Because all medications have side effects, you should try increasing the fiber and water in your child’s diet first. Make sure they get enough exercise before trying stool softeners or laxatives. If your child does need laxatives, talk to your pediatrician about the best one for your child’s situation.
Take your child to the doctor if they have:
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Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Constipation in Children.”
Mayo Clinic: “Laxative (Oral Route).”
MedlinePlus: “Soluble vs. insoluble fiber.”
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Constipation in Children.”
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Appendix 13. Food Sources of Dietary Fiber.”
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