Castor oil is an extremely powerful laxative, functioning as both a bowel irritant and a stool lubricant. Used primarily as a treatment for severe, persistent constipation, castor oil is notorious for causing serious and uncomfortable side effects. Parents should not give their children castor oil except under the direct guidance of a qualified health-care provider.
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As a general rule, a 2-year-old is far too young to use any harsh laxative. MayoClinic.com notes that children under the age of 6 can rarely describe their symptoms accurately, so an expert opinion is necessary to diagnose constipation. Constipated toddlers may have underlying conditions responsible for their symptoms — and these require specialized treatment. Young children are also more sensitive to the potentially serious side effects associated with laxatives. Do not give your toddler any laxative without first consulting a pediatrician.
Mechanism of Action
The MedlinePlus online medical encyclopedia classifies castor oil as a stimulant laxative, meaning that it irritates the lining of the bowels, leading to cramping and the expulsion of feces. Along with mineral oil, it also acts as a lubricant. Slippery, fatty compounds in castor oil pass through the digestive system intact, causing stool to become loose and slippery. Castor oil's unique mechanism enables faster results than most other laxatives. Because of its powerful effects, MedlinePlus warns that no person, of any age, should use castor oil regularly.
Diarrhea, cramping and incontinence are among the most common side effects associated with castor oil. These effects can be intensely uncomfortable, even for healthy adults, and a toddler is likely to be far more sensitive to them. MedlinePlus warns against the use of castor oil in the evenings; it can cause the expulsion of diarrhea during sleep. Castor oil is also linked to intense abdominal pain because of its irritant effects on the bowels. MayoClinic.com adds that stimulant laxatives can cause intense stomach inflammation in young children, while oil-based laxatives can lead to pneumonia.
Julia You'll, a registered nurse and midwife, explains that while constipation is a very common problem affecting toddlers, laxatives are rarely necessary for treating it. You'll suggests giving quality sources of fiber, including prunes, whole grains, figs and potatoes, to 2-year-olds suffering from constipation. Increased fluid intake can also help to hydrate stools, making them easier for a constipated toddler to pass. When a doctor does determine that a toddler needs a laxative, he will generally recommend a mild, nonstimulant stool softener such as glycerin suppositories, lactulose or sorbitol.