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Constipation, Age 11 and Younger
Constipation means that stools have become hard and are difficult to pass. Some parents are overly concerned about how often their child has bowel movements. That's because they've been taught that a healthy child has a bowel movement every day. But this isn't true. How often a child has bowel movements isn't as important as whether the child can pass stools easily. Your child isn't constipated if their stools are soft and pass easily. This is true even if it has been a few days since the last bowel movement.
Newborns younger than 2 weeks should have at least 1 or 2 bowel movements a day. Babies older than 2 weeks can go 2 days and sometimes longer between bowel movements. It's usually okay if it takes longer than 2 days, especially if your baby is feeding well and seems comfortable. Breastfed babies are more likely to have frequent stools. They may have a stool as often as every feeding. Constipation is likely to occur when a baby switches from breast milk to formula. This is even more likely if the change happens during the first 2 to 3 weeks of life.
As babies grow older, the number of bowel movements they have each day gets smaller and the size of their stools gets bigger. A child age 3 or 4 years may have as many as 3 bowel movements a day or as few as 3 a week.
It's important for parents to recognize that there are many "normal" patterns for bowel movements in children. Some children may seem to have trouble passing a stool. The child's face may turn red, and they may strain to pass stool. If the stool is soft and the child doesn't seem to have other problems, this isn't a concern.
Most children will be constipated now and then. The problem usually doesn't last long or cause long-term problems. Home treatment is usually all that's needed to relieve constipation that occurs now and then. Causes of constipation include:
- Changes in diet, such as when a child starts to eat more adult foods.
- Not drinking enough fluids. Sometimes the normal amount of fluid a child drinks isn't enough. This can happen when the weather gets hot or the child gets more active.
- Not taking the time to have a bowel movement. A child may be so interested in play that they ignore the need to have a bowel movement.
- Reluctance to use the bathroom. A child might become constipated when they are in a new environment, such as when traveling.
- Changes in daily routine, such as when traveling or after starting school.
- Medicines. Many medicines can cause constipation.
Constipation may occur with cramping and pain if the child is straining to pass hard, dry stools. The child may have some bloating and nausea. There may also be small amounts of bright red blood on the stool caused by slight tearing (anal fissure) as the stool is pushed through the anus. All of these symptoms should stop when the constipation is relieved.
For reasons that aren't always known, some children often have constipation that doesn't get better or go away with treatment (chronic constipation). This may be because of the painful passing of a hard, dry stool. After a while, the child may not be able to resist the urge to have a bowel movement and will pass a large mass of stool. The child may have to "push hard" during the bowel movement, which may be painful. Passing the stool relieves the pressure and pain until another mass of stool collects. Then the cycle is repeated. Fear of pain may cause the child to try to hold the bowel movement.
Other causes of chronic constipation may include:
- A crack (fissure) around the anus. It can make bowel movements painful and cause the child to resist passing stools. Fissures are a common problem that may get worse every time the child passes a large stool.
- A brief illness with poor food intake, fever, and little or no physical activity. This can upset normal bowel habits.
- Emotional problems or toilet training problems. They can lead to withholding stools on purpose. A child may have fought the toilet training process or been pushed too fast. Struggling with parents for control may cause a child to hold stools back as long as possible.
- A change in environment. At school, children may withhold stools for several reasons. Maybe they are afraid or embarrassed to use school bathrooms. Or maybe their schedules are too busy for them to take time for a bowel movement. Or maybe their school activities interrupt their normal bowel movement time.
The child may not be able or willing to pass the stool regardless of its size. Liquid or loose stool may leak out, soiling the child's underwear. When this occurs in a child who is past the age of normal toilet training, it's called encopresis.
Chronic constipation usually requires several months of treatment and cooperation between the parents, the child, and the doctor to overcome the problem. Don't be discouraged if the problem comes back during these months. The rectum is made of muscle tissue. When a child has had chronic constipation, the muscle gets stretched. It may take several months to get the muscle back into shape.
In rare cases, constipation in children may be caused by other health problems, such as:
- Cystic fibrosis.
- Hirschsprung's disease.
- Lead poisoning.
- An overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism).
- An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
- A spinal cord injury.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
What you are looking for is a change in your child's usual bowel habits.
- Diarrhea means that the child is having more stools and looser ones than usual.
- Constipation means that the child is having fewer stools than usual.
Every baby and child has different bowel habits. What is "normal" for one child may not be normal for another. In general:
- Many newborns have at least 1 or 2 bowel movements a day. By the end of their first week, they may have as many as 5 to 10 bowel movements a day. They may pass a stool after each feeding.
- By 6 weeks of age, your baby may not have a bowel movement every day. This usually isn't a problem as long as the baby seems comfortable and is growing as expected, and as long as the stools aren't hard.
- By about 4 years of age, it's normal for a child to have as many as 3 bowel movements a day or as few as 3 a week.
Anywhere in these ranges can be considered normal if the habit is normal or usual for your child.
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause constipation. A few examples are:
- Some blood pressure medicines.
- Cold medicines (antihistamines).
- Calcium and iron supplements.
- Opioid pain medicines.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Here are some tips for caring for your child who is constipated.
- Make sure your child drinks enough fluids.
- Give your baby the right amount of extra fluid if you are using formula.
- If you are switching from breast milk to formula or are only using formula, give your baby no more than 1 fl oz (30 mL) to 2 fl oz (60 mL) of water and no more than 2 times each day for the first 2 to 3 weeks. Be sure to give your baby the suggested amount of formula for feedings plus the extra water between feedings. Don't give extra water for longer than 3 weeks unless your doctor tells you to. Don't give plain water to a baby younger than 2 months.
- If your child is older than 6 months, add fruit juices, such as apple, pear, or prune juice, to relieve the constipation. Don't give more than 4 fl oz (120mL) a day and don't give water for more than a week or two.
- After age 6 months, give 0.5 Tbsp (7 mL) to 2 Tbsp (30 mL) of prune juice. Increase the amount slowly over time.
- At age 9 months, add 1.5 Tbsp (22 mL) to 3 Tbsp (45 mL) of strained prunes each day.
- If fruit juices don't help, add baby foods with a high fiber content twice a day.
High-fiber baby foods include cooked dried beans or peas (legumes), apricots, prunes, peaches, pears, plums, and spinach.
- For children age 12 months and older, add high-fiber foods.
A diet with enough fiber (20 to 35 grams each day) helps the body form soft, bulky stool.
- Give your child at least 1 cup of fruit a day. Choose whole fruit instead of fruit juice.
- Give your child at least 1 cup of vegetables a day.
- Include high-fiber foods, such as beans or whole grains, in your child's diet each day.
- If your child gets constipated easily, limit foods that have little or no fiber, such as ice cream, cheese, meat, and processed foods.
- Gently massage your child's belly.
This may help relieve discomfort. You can also have your child lie on their back, legs flexed onto their belly. Then rotate your child's legs in a clockwise direction.
- Try a bath or suppositories to relieve rectal pain.
- Give your child a warm bath in the tub. This may help relax the muscles that normally keep stool inside the rectum (anal sphincter) so your child can pass the stool.
- If your child is age 6 months or older and the warm bath doesn't work, use 1 glycerin suppository. It can lubricate the stool and make it easier to pass. Use a suppository only once or twice. If constipation isn't relieved or occurs again, talk with your doctor.
- Don't give laxatives or enemas to children without first talking to your doctor.
Children shouldn't need an enema or laxatives to have a bowel movement.
When to call for help during self-care
Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:
- Constipation or changes in the stool that continue after a few days to 1 week of home treatment.
- New or worse rectal pain.
- New or worse blood in the stool.
- Uncontrolled leakage of stool.
- Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.
Preparing For Your Appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared for your appointment.
Current as of: March 22, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine