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Is it Safe to Give a Child OTC Laxatives?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 04, 2021

Occasional constipation is very common and not a cause for concern. When your child has constipation, they don't always understand why or what’s happening. You want to relieve their symptoms so they can feel better, but are OTC laxatives the answer?

OTC Laxatives for Kids

About Laxatives

Laxatives are a group of medications designed to relieve constipation, so that hard stools are easier to pass. Laxatives are available in oral and rectal forms. Oral medications may be pills or a powder you mix with water and drink. Rectal laxatives are in the form of suppositories and enemas. 

There are four ways that laxatives work:

  • Stool softeners add moisture to your stool, so it isn’t as hard 
  • Osmotic laxatives increase water in your intestines, so that hard stool passes easier
  • Lubricant laxatives coat your stool, so it is slippery and easier to pass 
  • Stimulant laxatives work to stimulate the rectal muscles and help push the stool out 

Each type of laxative uses a different active ingredient. You should follow dosage instructions closely and not give more than one type of laxative at a time. It’s also important to monitor the frequency of laxative dosages. You don’t want your child to become dependent on laxatives for passing stool.

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Symptoms of Constipation 

Each of us has different bathroom habits, so what’s normal for your child may not be for another. It’s important to be in-tune to your child’s bathroom habits, so you know when something is wrong. Your child isn’t necessarily constipated if they don't poop every day. Some children go multiple times each day while others go every other day.

General signs of constipation are:

  • Pooping less than normal
  • Difficulty pushing stool out
  • Pain when using the bathroom
  • Feeling full or bloated
  • Straining 
  • Seeing streaks of bright red blood when wiping

Causes of Constipation

Water and fiber help you to produce healthy bowel movements. Most of the time, constipation occurs when there is a lack of fiber, water, or both in your child’s diet. Processed food, dairy, white bread, and some meat contribute to constipation. 

If your child is taking medication for any reason, read the label to see if constipation is a side effect. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have before stopping a medication. Your pediatrician may have suggestions for ways to offset the constipating effects of your child's medication.

Other Considerations for Kids’ Constipation

Preventing Constipation

Once you address an episode of constipation, it’s important to build healthy habits that will prevent constipation in the future. Create a bathroom routine where you encourage your child to try and have a bowel movement after meals. If they struggle with using the bathroom and are successful, reward their efforts with a treat.

Prioritize fiber in your child’s diet. Make a list of fiber-rich foods that your child likes and include them in meal and snack rotations. Incorporate fruits and vegetables with every meal and snack. Ensuring that healthy foods are at the forefront of each meal will help your child to make the right food choices when they're away from home.

Offer water throughout the day. Keep an age-appropriate cup full of water within reach so your child can get their drink when they're thirsty. Try to limit soda and sugary drinks and establish healthy habits.

Don’t underestimate the impact of talking to your child. After all, knowledge is power. Explain constipation in terms that they will be able to understand. Explain what causes constipation, like eating processed foods and skipping out on water. Then explain what helps make it easier to poop, like drinking more water and prioritizing healthy food.

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Constipation Concerns

Your child may have chronic constipation if they have at least one of these symptoms each week for two consecutive months:

  • An episode of fecal incontinence, or leaking poop
  • Holding poop instead of relieving themselves as needed
  • Painful or hard stools
  • Presence of a large fecal mass inside the rectum (requires an exam by your child’s pediatrician)
  • Stools that are wide enough to clog the toilet
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Kid’s Health: “Constipation.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Treatment for Constipation in Children.”

Seattle Children’s Hospital: “Constipation, No Fun For Anyone.”

Texas Children’s Hospital: “Over-the-Counter Medications for Kids – Part 2: Constipation, Gas/Indigestion And Probiotics.”

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