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Children's Symptoms > Abdomen (GI) Symptoms > Constipation
Constipation

DEFINITION

  • Pain or crying during the passage of a stool (bowel movement or BM) OR  
  • Unable to pass a stool after straining or pushing longer than 10 minutes OR
  • 3 or more days without a stool (Exception: Breastfed and over 1 month old)

Imitators of ConstipationNormal Variations

  • If breastfed and over 1 month old: Infrequent stools every 4-7 days that are soft, large and pain-free can be normal. Before 1 month old, infrequent stools usually means an inadequate intake of breastmilk.
  • Grunting or straining while pushing out a stool is normal in young infants. (Reason: difficult to pass stool lying on back with no help from gravity) Infants commonly become red in the face during straining.
  • Brief straining or pushing for less than 10 minutes can occur occasionally at any age.
  • Large stools - Size relates to amount of food consumed and stool frequency. Large eaters have larger stools.
  • Hard or dry stools are also normal if passed easily without excessive straining.  Often relates to poor fiber intake. Some children even have small, dry rabbit-pellet-like stools.

Causes 

  • High milk or cheese diet 
  • Low fiber diet
  • Postponing stools
  • Slow intestinal transit time (genetic differences)

See More Appropriate Topic (instead of this one) If


WHEN TO CALL YOUR DOCTOR

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If

  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • Persistent abdominal pain over 1 hour (includes persistent crying)
  • Persistent rectal pain over 1 hour (includes persistent straining)
  • Vomiting over 3 times in last 2 hours
  • Age under 1 month old and breastfed
  • Age under 12 months with recent onset of weak cry, weak suck or weak muscles
  • You think your child needs to be seen urgently

Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If

  • You think your child needs to be seen, but not urgently
  • Age under 2 months (Exception: normal straining and grunting)
  • Bleeding from anal fissures (tears)
  • Needs to pass stool BUT afraid to release OR refuses to go
  • Child may be "blocked up"

Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If

  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Leaking stool
  • Suppository or enema needed recently to relieve pain
  • Infrequent stools continue after dietary changes (EXCEPTION: normal if breastfed infant over 1 month old AND stools are not painful)
  • Toilet training is in progress
  • Painful stools occur 3 or more times
  • Constipation is a recurrent chronic problem

Parent Care at Home If

  • Mild constipation and you don't think your child needs to be seen

HOME CARE ADVICE FOR CONSTIPATION

  1. Normal Stools:
    • Once children are on a regular diet (age 1 year), the normal range for stools is 3 per day to 1 every 2 days.
    • The every 4 and 5 day kids all have pain with passage and prolonged straining.
    • The every 3 day kids usually drift into longer intervals and then develop symptoms.
    • Passing a stool should be fun, or at least free of discomfort.
    • Any child with discomfort during stool passage or prolonged straining at least needs treatment with dietary changes.
  2. Diet for Infants Under 1 Year:
    • For infants over 1 month old only on breast milk or formula, add fruit juices 1 ounce (30 ml) per month of age per day. Pear or apple juice are OK at any age. (Reason: treating a symptom)
    • For infants over 4 months old, also add baby foods with high fiber content twice a day (peas, beans, apricots, prunes, peaches, pears, plums).
    • If on finger foods, add cereal and small pieces of fresh fruit.
  3. Diet for Children Over 1 Year Old:
    • Increase fruit juice (apple, pear, cherry, grape, prune) (note: citrus fruit juices are not helpful).
    • Add fruits and vegetables high in fiber content (peas, beans, broccoli, bananas, apricots, peaches, pears, figs, prunes, dates) 3 or more times per day.
    • Increase whole grain foods (bran flakes, bran muffins, graham crackers, oatmeal, brown rice, and whole wheat bread.  Popcorn can be used if over 4 years old.)
    • Limit milk products (milk, ice cream, cheese, yogurt) to 3 servings per day.
  4. Stop Toilet Training:  Temporarily put your child back in diapers or pull-ups.
    • Reassure him that the poops won't hurt when they come out.
    • Praise him for the release of stools.  
    • Avoid any pressure, punishment or power struggles about holding back poops, sitting on the potty or resistance to training.
  5. Sitting on the Toilet (if toilet trained): Establish a regular bowel pattern by sitting on the toilet for 10 minutes after meals, especially breakfast.
  6. Warm Water for Rectal Pain: Warmth helps many children relax the anal sphincter and release a stool. For prolonged straining, have your child sit in warm water or apply a warm wet cotton ball to the anus. Move it side to side to help relax the anus.
  7. Flexed Position:
    • Help your baby by holding the knees against the chest to simulate squatting (the natural position for pushing out a stool). It's difficult to have a stool while lying down.
    • Gently pumping the lower abdomen may also help.
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Constipation continues after making dietary changes
    • Your child becomes worse

And remember, contact your doctor if your child develops any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.


Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Author and Senior Reviewer: Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 11/14/2011

Last Revised: 11/14/2011

Content Set: Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker

Copyright 1994-2012 Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.


Additional Resources:

 How to use the Adult Health Topics pages
 When to call the doctor
 Reviewers of Clinical Content

Disclaimer: The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment.

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