When to Worry About Constipation in Children

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Fiber in cereal and fruits prevents and treats constipation. (Image: a_namenko/iStock/Getty Images)

Although children have different bowel patterns, your child is considered to have constipation if she has difficulty passing stools or hasn’t been able to have three or more bowel movements a week, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Large, dry, hard stools are also indicative of constipation. This condition can be quite uncomfortable for the child and worrying for you.

Causes

Children are most likely to become constipated if they eat a diet low in fiber from sources such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains, according to Dr. Vincent Iannelli, creator of the Keep Kids Healthy website. Other factors include eating too much refined foods, such as candy, or dietary changes, such as transitioning from breast milk to cow’s milk or starting solids, explains the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Effects

The end of the large intestines has muscles that tighten during constipation and prevent stools from passing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The stool becomes drier, firmer and more difficult for the child to pass. Constipation can be quite painful, and children with this condition often begin to hold their bowel movements to avoid the pain, Iannelli says.

When to Worry

It’s common for children to experience constipation, so don’t be overly concerned if the problem lasts for a few days, the American Academy of Family Physicians advises. But if the condition lasts for two weeks or more, your child has chronic constipation and needs to see the pediatrician. Other serious symptoms to watch for include abdominal pain and soiled pants or diapers, which occur when constipation prevents your child from sensing the urge to pass a stool, explains the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Treatment

Your first recourse is to offer your child more liquids, such as water and juice to soften the stools. Increase the amount of fiber your child eats each day, including more fruits and vegetable soup, recommends Iannelli. Also, limit foods that contribute to constipation, such as cow's milk, cheese and uncooked carrots, Iannelli advises. In severe cases your pediatrician may prescribe a laxative or recommend an enema.

Caution

While you can purchase over-the-counter laxatives and stool-softening medications, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that you should never give your child one of these treatments without seeking medical advice first.

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