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Children's Health

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Constipation, Age 11 and Younger - Topic Overview

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. Breast-fed 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:

  • Changes in diet, such as when a child starts eating more adult foods. Constipation may also occur if your child drinks too much cow's milk. This happens most often in children younger than age 2.
  • Not drinking enough fluids. Sometimes the normal amount of fluid a child drinks is not enough, such as when the weather gets hot or the child increases his or her physical activities.
  • Not taking the time to have a bowel movement. A child may be so interested in play that he or she ignores the need to have a bowel movement.
  • Reluctance to use the bathroom. A child might become constipated when he or she is in a new environment, such as when traveling.
  • Changes in daily routine, such as when traveling or after starting school.
  • Medicines. Many medicines can cause constipation.

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.

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