Easing Your Child's Constipation

By Susan Moores, MS, RD
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Constipation can be painful, stressful and embarrassing for kids and it takes a toll on parents, too. If your child is struggling with constipation, they're not alone. Constipation is the cause for about three to five percent of visits to the pediatrician, but it may affect up to 30 percent of kids.

What Is Constipation?

Constipation is defined as having infrequent bowel movements or hard, dry stools — in other words — having difficulty "pooping." According to the National Institutes of Health, fewer than three bowel movements a week over the span of at least two weeks can qualify as constipation. It may or may not be accompanied by pain.

"If your child seems in pain when having a bowel movement or has less than one bowel movement a week, your child is likely constipated," says Marina Chaparro, MPH, RDN, LD, CDE, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It is common to see children withholding the urge to have a bowel movement because they feel unconformable or simply want to continue playing. This can exacerbate the problem."

Registered dietitian nutritionists can offer strategies for helping your child cope.

Talk with your pediatrician if your child's constipation lasts longer than two weeks or is accompanied by a fever, vomiting, swelling of the abdomen or blood in the stool.

What Causes Constipation?

Most kids have no medical reason for their constipation, says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "In many cases it develops because kids are afraid to go number two, embarrassed to go in an unfamiliar place such as a public bathroom or friend's house, or they simply don't want to stop what they're doing to go." Repeatedly delaying the urge causes the stool to become hard and difficult to pass.

There can be other causes too, adds Chaparro. Eating fewer fruits and vegetables, moving less and drinking more sweetened beverages have the opposite effect in helping digestion. Not drinking enough water also can cause constipation because adequate hydration helps move food through the digestive tract.

What Can You Do?

Sheth and Chaparro offer these ideas:

  • Make sure your children are adequately hydrated. Water is best for hydration and serves an important role in softening stools.
  • Fiber gives stool bulk, making it easier for the digestive tract to move it along. Look for foods that include whole grains, vegetables and fruit, all of which contain insoluble fiber.
  • Try a warm beverage or warm whole-grain cereal in the morning — that may stimulate the "urge" a bit more says Sheth. Try to leave plenty of time after breakfast for your child to use the bathroom before heading out the door. Sheth finds kids often have to go 30 to 60 minutes after their meal.
  • Encourage at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Exercise not only benefits your child's overall health, but it also may improve digestion.

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