Fecal matter or stool normally absorbs fluids in the intestine, which when combined with the internal undulating movement of the intestine, passes through without a problem. Constipation takes place when fecal matter stays in the colon too long or moves too slowly through the area. In these instances, the body reabsorbs the fluid and the stool has difficulty moving downward and out of the rectum and anus Once some fecal matter becomes lodged, more accumulates and the colon stretches and continues filling. Depending on the extent of the blockage, children may experience different symptoms.
Constipation in Adults and in Children
Constipation may occur suddenly, last a short period of time, or become a chronic condition. Adults may experience constipation because of a lack of dietary fiber, poor food choices, dehydration, or a lack of physical activity. Medications, medical conditions or disease processes may also interfere with the normal digestive processes that lead to constipation.
While many of these factors may apply to children, physical activity is generally not involved. Some young children around the age of potty training may have a fear of passing stool into a toilet. Other children may refuse to toilet outside of the home. Under these circumstances, the body absorbs the liquid, the fecal matter dries and becomes stuck in the colon. Physicians report that acute constipation, which occurs suddenly and is short term, is very common in children.
Signs of Childhood Constipation
Children purposely refusing to toilet may clench their buttock muscles or perform dance-like movements. Parents may see smearing in underwear from fecal matter building up in the rectum and forcing outward. Some children may have urinary incontinence, as the stool presses against the bladder and causes wetting during the day or night. Children might also begin complaining about abdominal discomfort or cramping.
When to Visit a Healthcare Provider
Parents should consider taking the child to see a physician if constipation last for two weeks without other symptoms or accompanies:
- Bloody Stools
- Abdominal Swelling
- Weight Loss
Treating Childhood Constipation
Behavioral modification, proper hydration and nutrition, and medication are commonly used to correct constipation in children. Young children may require a break from toilet training until they begin having bowel movements. Some children become more cooperative with passing stool on a toilet when offered rewards. Encouraging children to use the toilet upon awakening and after meals helps them become comfortable with toileting and eliminating stools.
Increasing the amount of fluid and fiber in a child's diet helps resolve current and prevents future episodes of constipation. Provide plenty of water, fruit juices, fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains for fiber. Diets consisting of starchy, processed foods generally contribute to the problem.
Under the advice of a healthcare provider, a child may require medication to help eliminate the constipation. In most instances a physician may recommend any number of OTC preparations. Depending on the extent of the blockage, a child may initially require a mild enema using a small bottle filled with warm liquid. Mild laxatives help soften stools and stimulate the colon to move stool along the organ.