Constipation Home > Constipation in Children

When constipation occurs in children, it is often temporary and not serious. Treatment will depend on the child's age and the severity of the problem. Some possible treatments include adding more fiber and liquids to the diet, getting more exercise, and, in some cases, using an enema or laxative. However, laxatives can be dangerous to children and should be given only with a doctor's approval.

An Overview of Constipation in Children

Constipation means that bowel movements are hard and dry, difficult or painful to pass, and less frequent than usual. It is a common problem for children, but it is usually temporary and not a cause for concern.
When a child does not eat enough fiber, drink enough liquids, or get enough exercise, constipation is more likely to occur. It also happens when children ignore the urge to have a bowel movement, which they often do out of embarrassment to use a public bathroom, fear or lack of confidence in the absence of a parent, or unwillingness to take a break from play. Sometimes constipation is caused by medicines or a disease.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms that your child is constipated include:
  • No bowel movements for several days or daily bowel movements that are hard and dry
  • Cramping and 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 the buttocks, rocking up and down on toes, and turning red in the face are signs of trying to hold in a bowel movement.

Treating a Child Who Is Constipated

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.
Although constipation is usually harmless, it can be a sign or cause of a more serious problem. A child should see a healthcare provider if:
  • Episodes of constipation last longer than three 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.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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