Every parent goes through That Phase. The one where your child, no matter what you try, seems to struggle to poo. It’s estimated up to one in three children in the UK has constipation. at any one time, thanks to illness, poor diet, fear of using the toilet, and poor toilet training.
It comes as no surprise that constipation can make little ones miserable. Younger children experiencing constipation may not fully understand why they are in discomfort or pain. This can lead to them becoming grumpy, having trouble sleeping, and struggling to explain why they are feeling uncomfortable. A recent poll of over 1,000 parents for Docusol Paediatric found that two-thirds of parents (66%) report their child getting grumpy when constipated, leaving half (50%) of parents feeling helpless and unsure of what to do. So, what can we do to help our kids feel more comfortable and have more regular bowel movements?
Is it common for children to be constipated?
Pharmacist Sultan Dajani, advisor to Docusol Paediatric, commented, “We assume that emptying our bowels should just happen as a normal bodily function; an instinct. Right? We don’t have to teach newborn babies how to empty their bowels – they just do it. Yet, constipation in children is incredibly common.
“It’s estimated that around one in every seven adults and up to one in every three children in the UK has constipation at any one time. Three-quarters of parents polled say their child has had constipation at some point. Almost four in 10 (39%) of parents say their child has experienced constipation two to three times in the last year, while more than a quarter (28%) say it’s happened seven times or more. The knock-on psychological and emotional effects are often underappreciated.”
So, why is it so common for children to be constipated, how can we recognise the signs, and what can we do to help?
Why do children get constipated?
Children can become constipated for a wide variety of reasons. Common causes can include:
- Being early on in the toilet training process (which can mean: children ignore, resist, or don’t recognise the urge to use the toilet; feels pressured; or may be interrupted when trying to go).
- Changes in diet. This can include when weaning, trying new foods, going through a ‘fussy eating’ stage, or starting at a new school or nursery.
- Not eating enough high-fibre foods (including fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals or breads).
- Routine or big life changes, such as starting at nursery, reception, or a new school; moving house, or having a new sibling, can cause feelings of anxiety, worry, or stress, which can lead to constipation.
- Not drinking enough fluids (which can lead to dehydration).
When children get constipated, they can find it painful to poo. This can lead to them trying not to poo or ‘holding it in’, which can create a vicious cycle. Seeking help could be the answer.
Does my child have constipation? Signs and symptoms
Children who are constipated may not poo at all, or may have infrequent bowel movements with hard, dry stools. There are a number of different common symptoms you can look out for, as well as questions you can answer to figure out if your child may be experiencing constipation. Ask:
- Has your child pooed at least three times in the last week? While the frequency of poos varies by age, the NHS warns that less than three poos in a week can be a sign of constipation, while Eric, The Children’s Bowel & Bladder Charity, says that children should have soft, easy-to-pass movements at least four times a week – ideally daily.
- What does their poo look like? If they have type one or two poos according to the Bristol stool chart (small hard lumps like rabbit droppings; or sausage-shaped, hard and lumpy) this is a sign of constipation.
- Do they strain or are they in pain when they poo? Is there any sign of blood due to straining, size, or how hard their stool is?
- Are they eating less than usual, or have stomach pain that gets better after pooing?
- Are they currently being toilet trained, or going through any other big life changes that could be causing them to feel stressed, anxious, or worried?
- Are they showing any worry or fear around using the toilet?
If you think your child might be constipated, it’s important to visit your GP. Depending on their age and symptoms, your GP can recommend the best course of action to help. The longer you delay and the longer your child is constipated, the more difficult it can be to help them get back to normal.
Is child constipation dangerous?
Constipation is extremely common among children in the UK. While it typically isn’t serious, being constipated can be a symptom of other underlying conditions. Chronic constipation can also lead to other complications. If you are worried that your child may be constipated, it’s important to book an appointment with your GP. They will be able to rule out any other potential issues or worries, as well as to recommend the best age-appropriate solution for your child.
How long does constipation last for children?
The length of time your child may be constipated can vary. Typically, pooing less than three times a week is considered to be a sign of constipation according to the NHS. Depending on the treatment recommended by your GP, as well as how long your child has been constipated, can affect how quickly they may get back to normal. Some treatments can take several months to fully work, while others may have a quicker impact.
How to help my constipated child
If your child is constipated, there are a number of different ways you can help them.
Book an appointment with your GP. Your doctor can recommend the best age-appropriate treatment for your child. They can also rule out any other potential underlying health issues that may be causing or exacerbating their constipation.
Help them manage and reduce stress. Constipation doesn’t just have a physical impact – it can have a mental one, too. Not only can stress cause constipation issues, but it can also lead to further feelings of stress, anxiety, and worry. As Sultan explains, “[Constipation] is often painful, but a young child hasn’t got the words to say how they feel and that can be incredibly frustrating. Children who experience constipation often really suffer and it can take a huge toll on their mental health and on their parents too.”
Focusing on and reducing your own stress levels can have a significant impact on your child’s stress. According to research, parental stress can impact children. If you’re unsure how to get started in tackling your own stress levels, try these simple tips to help manage stress.
Focus on happier, healthier meal times. Creating a relaxed, calm, and happy environment around meals can be a challenge. But the more we focus on making meals a time for family and healthy eating, the less time we spend unintentionally ramping up stress levels with arguments, pushing reluctant eaters to try new foods, and accidentally creating mealtime anxiety. If picky eating is causing mealtime anxiety, find out more about what you can do to help without adding unintentional pressure.
Take things calmly and slowly. If your child is still potty training, creating a calm, comfortable atmosphere around the bathroom can help. It’s important to avoid creating a sense of stress around using the toilet – after all, for adults, it’s just a normal part of life. Check-in with them to see if they have any worries about using the toilet. You can try using a small step to help them feel more comfortable reaching and sitting on the toilet, if they struggle to get up or their feet don’t touch the ground.
Keep an eye on what they eat. What we eat has a huge impact on our bowel movements. Ensuring your child has a healthy, varied diet filled with fruits, veggies, and whole grains is essential for their growth and development. Sticking to water over sugary juices, squashes, and carbonated drinks is also important in promoting healthier, life-long eating habits. To find out more about healthy eating and nutritional needs, check out Nutritionist Resource’s guides for infants and pre-school children, as well as for schoolchildren and teens.
Need support? Connect with a nutritional professional using Nutritionist Resource.