Constipation refers to delay or difficulty in passing stool for a period of at least 1 month in infants and toddlers and a period of 2 months in older children. Stools are harder and sometimes larger than usual and may be painful to pass. Constipation is very common among children. It accounts for up to 5% of children's visits to the doctor. Infants and children are particularly prone to developing constipation at three periods of time. The first period is when cereals and solid food are introduced into the infant's diet, the second period is during toilet training, and the third period is around the start of school.
The frequency and consistency of bowel movements (BMs) vary throughout childhood, and there is no single definition of what is normal. Newborns typically have four or more loose, yellow, seedy stools per day. During the first year, infants have 2 to 4 a day. Breastfed infants typically have more BMs than formula-fed infants and may have one after each breastfeeding. After a month or two, some breastfed infants have BMs less frequently, but the stools remain mushy or loose. After 1 year of age, most children have one or sometimes two soft but formed stools a day. However, some infants and young children typically have BMs only once every 3 to 4 days. Guidelines for identifying constipation in infants and children include no BMs for 2 or 3 more days than usual, hard or painful BMs, large-diameter stools that may clog the toilet, or drops of blood on the outside of the stool.
In infants, signs of effort such as straining and crying before successfully passing a soft stool usually do not indicate constipation. These symptoms are usually caused by failure to relax the pelvic floor muscles during passage of stool and typically resolve spontaneously.
Parents often worry about their child's BMs, but constipation usually has no serious consequences. Some children with constipation regularly complain of abdominal pain, particularly after meals. Occasionally, passing large, hard stools may cause a small tear in the anus (anal fissure). Anal fissures are painful and may result in streaks of bright red blood on the outside of the stool or on toilet paper. Rarely, chronic constipation can contribute to urinary problems such as urinary tract infections and bed wetting.
In 95% of children, constipation results from
Constipation that results from dietary or behavioral issues is called functional constipation.
Dietary issues that cause constipation include a diet that is low in fluids and/or fiber (as occurs in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains).
Behavioral issues that may be associated with constipation include stress (as may be felt when a sibling is born), resistance to toilet training, and a desire for control. Also, children may intentionally put off having BMs (called stool withholding) because they have a painful anal fissure or because they do not want to stop playing. Sexual abuse may result in stress or injury that causes children to withhold stool. If children do not move their bowels when the natural urge comes, the rectum eventually stretches to accommodate the stool. When the rectum has stretched, the urge to have a BM lessens, and more and more stool accumulates and hardens. A vicious circle of worsening constipation may result. If the accumulated stool hardens, it sometimes blocks the passage of other stool—a condition called fecal impaction. Looser stool from above the hardened stool may leak around the impaction into the child's underwear. Parents may then think that the child has diarrhea when the actual problem is constipation.
Less common causes:
In about 5% of children, constipation results from a physical disorder, drug, or toxin. Disorders may be apparent at birth or develop later. Constipation that results from a disorder, drug, or toxin is called organic constipation.
In newborns and infants, the most common disorder that causes constipation is
Other causes of organic constipation include
Children with serious abdominal disorders (such as appendicitis or a blockage in the intestine) often do not have BMs. However, these children typically have other, more prominent symptoms, such as abdominal pain, swelling, and/or vomiting. These symptoms typically lead parents to seek medical care before the number of BMs decreases.
Doctors first try to determine whether constipation results from dietary or behavioral issues (functional) or from a disorder, toxin, or drug (organic).
Certain symptoms are cause for concern and should raise suspicion for an organic cause of constipation:
When to see a doctor:
Children should be evaluated by a doctor right away if they have any warning signs. If no warning signs are present but the child is passing infrequent, hard, or painful BMs, then the doctor should be called. Depending on the child's other symptoms (if any), the doctor may advise trying simple home treatments (see Symptoms in Infants and Children: Treatment) or ask the parents to bring the child for an examination.
What the doctor does:
Doctors first ask questions about the child's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the constipation and the tests that may need to be done (see Table 1: Symptoms in Infants and Children: Some Physical Causes and Features of Constipation in Infants and Children).
Doctors determine whether newborns have ever had a BM (the first BM is called meconium). Newborns who have not had a BM within 24 to 48 hours after birth should have a thorough examination to rule out the possibility of Hirschsprung disease, imperforate anus, or other serious disorder.
For infants and older children, doctors ask whether constipation began after a specific event, such as introducing cereal or other solid foods, eating honey, beginning toilet training, or starting school. For all age groups, doctors ask about diet and about disorders, toxins, and drugs that can cause constipation.
For the physical examination, doctors first look at the child overall for signs of illness and measure height and weight to check for signs of delayed growth. Doctors then focus on the abdomen, the anus (including examination of the rectum using a gloved finger), and nerve function (which can affect how the digestive tract functions).
If the cause appears to be functional, no tests are needed unless children do not respond to treatment. If children do not respond or if doctors suspect that the cause is another disorder, an x-ray of the abdomen is taken, and tests for other disorders are done based on the results of the examination.
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Treatment depends on the cause. When constipation results from a specific disorder, a drug, or a toxin, that cause is treated or corrected. For functional constipation, measures include
Changing the diet:
Dietary changes for infants include giving them 1 to 4 ounces (30 to 120 milliliters [mL]) of prune, pear, or apple juice each day. For infants younger than 2 months, 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of light corn syrup can be added to their formula in the morning and evening.
Older infants and children should increase their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber cereals and decrease consumption of constipating foods, such as milk and cheese.
Behavioral modification can help older children. Measures include
Sitting on the toilet after a meal can help because eating a meal triggers a reflex to have a BM. Frequently, children ignore the signals from this reflex and put off having a BM. This technique uses the reflex to help retrain the digestive tract, establish a toilet routine, and encourage more regular BMs.
Stool softeners and laxatives:
If constipation does not respond to behavioral modification and changes in diet, doctors may recommend certain drugs that help soften stool (stool softeners) and/or increase the spontaneous movement of the digestive tract (laxatives). Such drugs include polyethylene glycol, lactulose, mineral oil, milk of magnesia (magnesium hydroxide), senna, and bisacodyl. Many of these drugs are now available over the counter. However, doses should be based on the age and body weight of the child as well as the severity of constipation. Thus, parents should consult a doctor regarding the appropriate dose and number of doses per day before using these treatments. The goal of treatment is the passage of one soft stool per day.
If children have a fecal impaction, options include gentle enemas and agents (such as mineral oil or polyethylene glycol) taken by mouth with large amounts of fluid. If these treatments are ineffective, children may need to be hospitalized to have the impaction removed.
Infants do not usually require any of these treatments. Typically, a glycerin suppository is adequate.
To maintain regular BMs, some children may require fiber supplements (such as psyllium), which may be obtained without a prescription. For these supplements to be effective, children must drink 32 to 64 ounces of water a day.
Last full review/revision February 2013 by Deborah M. Consolini, MD