Kids and Constipation

For children, there's a wide range of what's regular

As an adult, you're no doubt very familiar with your own bowel movements (BMs). You know when something changes—you aren't going as often as usual or your poop takes on a different shape or color. And you certainly are aware when you're constipated.

But what's normal for you isn't necessarily going to be what's normal for your child. If they have a bowel movement just once or twice a week, for example, does this mean they're constipated, or simply that their digestive system is on a different clock from yours?

It's not uncommon for a child to become constipated, but at the same time, how often they need a poopy diaper changed or head to the bathroom on their own isn't the best indicator. Here's what parents need to know about kids' bowel movements

Kid Poop: A Primer

Children's bowel movements evolve with age and differ according to diet. For example, a ​breastfed newborn may have as many as seven or more very loose stools each day, while an infant who's being given formula may have somewhat firmer stools much less frequently.

A toddler can have a bowel movement as many as three times a day. The same is true of older kids, but it can be just as normal for them to go only three times a week.

Because normal can differ so dramatically from child to child, if you're worried about your kid's bathroom habits, it's more helpful to look for changes in their personal patterns than to compare them to your own or those of your other kids. If your child goes from having two bowel movements a day to just twice a week, it could be a sign something's wrong.

Know When There's a Problem 

A better indicator a child may be constipated than how often they go to the bathroom is what their stools look like. If they're soft and formed, it's doubtful they're constipated—even if they poop only every two or three days. But if their BMs are large and hard, they have trouble passing them, and it hurts when they do, most likely they're constipated.

Sometimes, the effort to push out a hard poop can cause tiny tears in a child's anus, so a bit of blood can be normal as well. The same is true if their stool looks like little balls or pellets. 

Lots of blood after a BM may indicate a serious medical problem, so check with your child's doctor right away if you see this.

Evading Encopresis

One potential complication of painful bowel movements parents should be aware of is a condition called encopresis. Children withhold their stool for a number of reasons: because it hurts them to poop, they are resisting being potty-trained, or they're uncomfortable using the bathroom away from home.

In these cases their bowel movements can become so hard and so large that they simply can't go. Instead of having real BMs, less formed stool may leak out around the build-up, which parents may mistake for an actual bowel movement or as soiling.

A child with encopresis may either go untreated because it appears nothing is wrong or be punished for making a mess.

If constipation is severe, it could affect a child's appetite and subsequent weight gain. In addition, the nerves in a chronically stool-filled rectum can lose some of their sensitivity. While generally reversible with treatment, this decreased sensation may make it difficult for constipated children to get the internal cues that prompt a trip to the bathroom.

A Word From Verywell

The sooner a child who's truly constipated gets help, then, the better. If you think this is the case for your kid, see the pediatrician. Relief may be just some extra dietary fiber, in the form of more fruits and vegetables, or a supplement.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nemours KidsHealth. Constipation.

  2. Sujatha B, Velayutham DR, Deivamani N, Bavanandam S. Normal bowel pattern in children and dietary and other precipitating factors in functional constipation. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015;9(6):SC12-5.  doi:10.7860/JCDR/2015/13290.6025

  3. Stanford Children’s Health. Encopresis.

  4. Harvard Medical School. Encopresis (fecal soiling).

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.