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How can you prevent constipation in children?

profile picture of Elizabeth Rogers
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
23 February 2024
Next review due February 2027

Constipation is a common problem in children. It happens when your child’s bowel movements are less frequent than normal, or they find it difficult or uncomfortable to go. Constipation can affect children at any age, but is most common at the time of toilet training (between two and three years).

Here, I discuss the causes of constipation in children and suggest ways you can prevent or relieve their symptoms.

parents kissing a baby

What causes constipation in children?

Constipation usually happens when waste moves too slowly through the digestive system. Several factors can cause constipation in your child, such as a diet low in fibre or nutrients.

Other risk factors include a family history of constipation, certain infections, stress, and not drinking enough fluids.

How do you know if your child has constipation?

It may not always be easy to tell if your child is constipated, especially if they’re not able to communicate their discomfort.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • pooing less than three times a week
  • straining or showing signs of pain when going for a poo
  • straining to hold a poo in (withholding)
  • avoiding the toilet – your child may cross their legs, clench, or refuse to go
  • tummy aches
  • poos that are hard, dry, or difficult to pass
  • small poos – these may be described as like ‘rabbit droppings’
  • traces of liquid or soft poo in their pants

If you are unsure whether your child is showing symptoms of constipation you can speak to their doctor. They will be able to assess your child’s symptoms and give a clearer picture.

How can you prevent constipation in your child?

The thought of your child in discomfort or pain is worrying for any parent. Luckily, there are things you can do to prevent your child from becoming constipated. Some of these are similar to preventing constipation in adults.

  • Provide a fibre-rich diet. You can offer your child high-fibre foods, to make their stool softer and easier to pass. Foods high in fibre include fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and beans. Start by adding a few extra grams of fibre to your child’s diet, as too much can cause gas and bloating. Children over the age of two should consume between 15 to 20 grams of fibre per day.
  • Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids. Low water intake can cause constipation. Make sure your child is meeting the recommended daily fluid intake. This is around four cups of water for one to three-year-olds, and five cups for four to eight-year-olds.
  • Encourage physical activity. Movement increases bowel activity, so be sure to encourage active play.
  • Make going to the toilet fun. You could keep certain treats, like blowing bubbles or toys, just for the toilet or offer your child praise, to make going to the toilet a positive experience them.
  • Create a bowel habit diary. You may want to make a diary to track your child’s bowel movements. You could build this into a reward system for your child.
  • Give your child enough time. It’s important your child has enough time to poo and doesn’t feel rushed. You may wish to set aside time each day for them to sit on the toilet, such as after mealtimes. You should also encourage your child to go straight away if they need to go.

Preventing constipation can be as simple as changing your child’s diet and creating a positive association with going to the toilet.

How can you relieve symptoms of constipation?

If your child has constipation, you can try all the above to help ease their symptoms. A tummy (colonic) massage may also help your child to move their bowels. This is done by massaging the tummy in clockwise circles.

If nothing seems to be helping your child to go, you could try laxatives or other medications used to help soften their stool.

There are two types of laxatives which work in different ways. The type prescribed will depend on your child’s age, and whether they prefer a liquid or tablet form. Your child’s doctor will usually recommend the safest solution, and only use medication that they prescribe.

They may also check your child for signs of anything else that may be making them constipated. For example, conditions that can cause constipation include coeliac disease or an allergy to cow’s milk.


We now offer GP appointments for children under 18. Find out more about our Under 18 GP Service, call us on 0330 822 3072.

profile picture of Elizabeth Rogers
Dr Elizabeth Rogers
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics

 

Co-author

Annie Fry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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