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Easing Your Child's Constipation

Contributors: Susan Moores, MS, RD and Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN
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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.

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 two bowel movements a week can qualify as constipation in children. It may or may not be accompanied by pain.

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?

In many cases constipation 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, such as eating fewer fruits and vegetables, moving less and eating too many processed foods that are low in dietary fiber, which can have the opposite effect in helping digestion. Not drinking enough fluid also can cause constipation because adequate hydration helps move food through the digestive tract.

What Can You Do?

Here are some 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 dietary fiber.
  • Try a warm beverage or warm whole-grain cereal in the morning — that may stimulate the "urge" a bit more. Try to leave plenty of time after breakfast for your child to use the bathroom before heading out the door. Sometimes kids don't have the urge to go until 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.

Registered dietitian nutritionists also can offer strategies for helping to prevent constipation.