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.

Overview

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 she needs a poopy diaper changed or heads to the bathroom on her 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 and what those BMs produce 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 yours or other kids. If they go from having two bowel movements a day to going to the bathroom 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 poops 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. When a child holds her stool—either because they're already dealing with irregularity and it hurts to poop or for some other reason, such as they're resisting being potty-trained, for instance, 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.

Meanwhile, they may stop gaining weight at a healthy rate, and the pressure on their rectum from the increasing mass of stool may temporarily damage the nerves there. At that point, a kid may not be able to sense when they need to poop even after the constipation is resolved.

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.

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Article Sources
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  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). Updated November 2018.