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.
"Parents sometimes panic if a child doesn’t have a bowel movement every day," says Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, LD. "Less frequent movements don’t necessarily mean a child is constipated, because everyone’s normal is different. It helps if you can become familiar with your child’s normal patterns."
Also, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). They can offer more 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 Swinney, including iron supplements, certain medications, picky eating habits, a steady diet of highly processed, low-fiber foods, not drinking enough fluids and a low level of physical activity.
What Can You Do?
Sheth and Swinney offer these ideas.
- Serve meals with tasty fiber-rich foods such as pears and apples (with their skins on), carrots, sugar snap peas, beans and whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat and corn. Grate zucchini and carrots and add them to casseroles, soups, side dishes and sandwiches. Use every meal and snack as an opportunity to serve fiber-rich food. Repeatedly expose your children to foods they initially reject. Get your kids to participate in grocery shopping and food prep — it will foster their natural curiosity and get them more invested in what they eat.
- Serve dried, fresh or frozen fruit as a snack, or make a fruit smoothie, mixing fruit with low-fat yogurt or kefir. Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds to one cup of the smoothie to boost the fiber content.
- Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids. It will help soften stools and make it easier for them to pass.
- 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.
- Make the bathroom break as pleasant as possible. During potty training, give your child lots of praise for using the toilet.