If you’ve been constipated as an adult, you know how uncomfortable it can be. Now imagine being a baby, toddler, or young child with constipation.
They don’t understand what’s happening, and depending on their age, they can’t always communicate their symptoms. Your child could be constipated for some time before you realize it.
Constipation is infrequent bowel movements, typically fewer than three in 1 week. In many cases, child constipation is short term and resolves with treatment.
To treat it, though, you must learn how to recognize the signs of constipation in your child.
The symptoms of constipation in babies and children aren’t much different from symptoms in adults. The main difference is that babies and some children can’t communicate how they feel, so you need to pay attention to their bowel movements to recognize irregularity.
- pellet-like bowel movements
- difficulty passing stools
- crying during bowel movements
- hard, dry stools
- less frequent bowel movements
Stool frequency can vary from baby to baby, so use your baby’s normal activity as a baseline. If your baby normally has one bowel movement a day and it’s been a few days since their last stool, this could be a sign of constipation.
Toddlers may have similar symptoms to a baby, as listed above. You may see other symptoms in toddlers, too, such as:
- unusually large stools
- stomach feels hard to the touch
- abdominal swelling
- traces of blood on toilet paper (due to small tears around the anus from straining)
Along with the aforementioned symptoms, older kids may complain of stomach pain and have traces of liquid in their underwear from backed up stool in the rectum.
Your older child may also have pain during bowel movements and avoid going to the bathroom.
Drink more water
Constipation can develop when stools become dry and hard. Drinking water can soften stools, making them easier to pass.
If your baby is at least 6 months old, you can offer 2 to 3 ounces of water at a time to relieve constipation. Keep in mind that water doesn’t replace regular feedings.
Drink some fruit juice
Fruit juice is also effective for relieving constipation because some contain the sweetener sorbitol, which can function as a laxative.
Add more high fiber foods
If your baby has started eating solid foods, incorporate more high fiber baby foods into their diet. This includes:
Reduce amount of rice cereal
Rice cereal can also trigger constipation because it’s low in fiber. Reduce the amount of rice cereal you feed your baby to relieve constipation.
Another option is to insert an infant glycerin suppository into your baby’s anus. These are safe for infants and available over the counter for fast relief.
Babies under the age of 6 months only need formula and breast milk, no other fluids. If you’ve been giving a baby under 6 months solid foods or rice cereal, stop giving these foods. See if their symptoms improve. If symptoms don’t improve, see their pediatrician.
For older kids, here are a few basic tips to stimulate bowel movements.
Increase their water intake
Lack of fluids contributes to constipation in older children. Make sure your child drinks at least 32 ounces of water each day to help soften their stools.
Give your child a suppository
Similar to infants, glycerin suppositories can soften stools in older children so they’re easier to pass.
Increase fiber intake
A low fiber diet is another contributing factor to constipation in children. Be sure to include more fiber-rich options in their diet. This includes more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You can also administer children fiber supplements.
To figure out how much fiber your child needs per day, take their age and add 5. So, if your child is 8 years old, they’ll need 13 grams of fiber per day.
Increase physical activity
A sedentary lifestyle may also play a role in constipation. Encourage physical activity to help stimulate intestinal contractions and bowel movements.
Laxatives and enemas offer fast constipation relief in adults. However, don’t give these to your infant or toddler. Only a doctor should recommend this.
You can safely give one to kids 4 years and older to soften stools and relieve constipation, though.
Always consult a doctor before giving children a laxative or enema. They can recommend a safe dosage.
If home treatments don’t improve constipation, your pediatrician may administer a gentle enema to release impacted feces.
Before treatment, your pediatrician will complete a physical examination and check your baby’s anus for impacted stool. They may ask questions about your child’s diet and physical activity to help diagnose constipation.
Medical tests aren’t usually necessary. In cases of severe or long-term constipation, your pediatrician may order tests to check for problems in your child’s abdomen or rectum.
These tests include:
- abdominal X-ray
- barium enema X-ray (takes pictures of the rectum, colon, and parts of the small intestine)
- motility test (places a catheter in the rectum to examine muscle movement)
- transit study (analyzes how fast food moves through their digestive tract)
- rectal biopsy (removes a piece of tissue and examines nerve cells in the lining of the rectum)
See your pediatrician if constipation lasts longer than 2 weeks or if your child develops other symptoms, such as:
- refusal to eat
- abdominal swelling
- weight loss
- pain during bowel movements
Understanding the common causes of constipation in children can help prevent future bouts. Causes include:
- a change in routine or pattern (like traveling, starting a new school, or stress)
- eating a low fiber diet and not drinking enough liquids
- ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement, maybe because they don’t want to use a public toilet
- dairy allergies or an intolerance to dairy products
- family history of constipation
Be mindful that constipation is sometimes a symptom of an underlying health condition, like:
Here are a few tips to help prevent constipation in babies, toddlers, and children:
- Don’t give solid foods until your baby is at least 6 months old.
- Aim to serve more high fiber foods, such as beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Increase your child’s water intake to at least 1 liter (32 ounces) a day.
- Encourage physical activity, such as riding a bike, kicking a ball, or walking the dog.
- Teach your child not to ignore the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Help your child develop a pattern of using the bathroom after meals. Have them sit on the toilet for about 10 minutes after eating so that bowel movements become a regular part of their routine.
Constipation in babies and children is often short term and not related to an underlying health condition.
It can, however, be a symptom of something else. See your pediatrician if constipation becomes chronic and doesn’t resolve with home remedies.