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Constipation occurs when stools become hard and are difficult to pass. Some parents are overly concerned about how often their child has bowel movements, because they have been taught that a healthy child has a bowel movement every day. This is not true. The frequency of bowel movements is not as important as whether the child can pass stools easily. Your child is not constipated if his or her stools are soft and pass easily, even if it has been a few days since the last bowel movement.
Newborns younger than 2 weeks should have at least 1 or 2 bowel movements a day. Babies older than 2 weeks can go 2 days and sometimes longer between bowel movements. It's usually okay if it takes longer than 2 days, especially if your baby is feeding well and seems comfortable. Breastfed babies are more likely to have frequent stools and may have a stool as often as every feeding. Constipation is likely to occur when a baby changes from breast milk to formula, especially if this change happens during the first 2 to 3 weeks of life.
As babies grow older, the number of bowel movements they have each day gets less and the size of their stools gets bigger. A child age 3 or 4 years may normally have as many as 3 bowel movements a day or as few as 3 a week.
It is important for parents to recognize there are many "normal" patterns for bowel movements in children. Some children may appear to have trouble passing a stool. The child's face may turn red, and he or she may strain to pass stool. If the stool is soft and the child does not seem to have other problems, this is not a concern.
Most children will occasionally become constipated. The problem is usually short-lived and does not cause long-term problems. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve occasional constipation. Causes of constipation include:
Constipation may occur with cramping and pain if the child is straining to pass hard, dry stools. He or she may have some bloating and nausea. There may also be small amounts of bright red blood on the stool caused by slight tearing (anal fissure) as the stool is pushed through the anus. All of these symptoms should stop when the constipation is relieved.
For reasons that can't always be identified, some children often develop constipation that does not get better or go away with treatment (chronic constipation). The most significant factor may be the painful passing of a hard, dry stool. After a while, the child may be unable to resist the urge to have a bowel movement and will pass a large mass of stool. The child may have to "push hard" during the bowel movement, which may be painful. Passing the stool relieves the pressure and pain until another mass of stool collects, and the cycle is repeated. Fear of pain may cause the child to try to hold the bowel movement.
Other causes of chronic constipation may include:
The child may be unable or unwilling to pass the stool regardless of its size. Liquid or loose stool may leak out, soiling the child's underwear. When this occurs in a child who is past the age of normal toilet training, it is called encopresis.
Chronic constipation usually requires several months of treatment and co-operation between the parents, the child, and the doctor to overcome the problem. Don't be discouraged if the problem comes back during these months. The rectum is made of muscle tissue; when a child has had chronic constipation, the muscle becomes stretched. It may take several months to get the muscle back into shape.
In rare cases, constipation in children may be caused by other health problems, such as:
Check your child's symptoms to decide if and when your child should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
What you are looking for is a change in your child's usual bowel habits.
Every baby and child has different bowel habits. What is "normal" for one child may not be normal for another. For example:
Anywhere in these ranges can be considered normal if the habit is normal or usual for your child.
Many prescription and non-prescription medicines can cause constipation. A few examples are:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Constipation can usually be treated effectively at home.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
For babies younger than 12 months:
For children age 12 months and older:
Constipation sometimes becomes a problem when children start toilet training:
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your child's condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Adaptation Date: 8/17/2021
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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