Fortunately, constipation is usually temporary, and by finding the cause of your child's constipation, you can help them get back to regular bowel movements. Rinarani Sanghavi, M.D., Director of Neurogastroenterology and GI motility at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, explains some common reasons why children become constipated.
What causes constipation in kids?
Children can become constipated for a variety of reasons, ranging from certain foods or a lack of fiber in their diet to stress or side effects from a medication. If your child is constipated, look for one of these common causes:
- Processed foods
- Changes in routine
- Video games
- Potty training
1. Processed foods
Diet is a leading cause of constipation. Because of the ease of packaged snacks, many children eat a diet of too many processed foods. These foods often contain little to no fiber, which is essential for regular, healthy bowel movements.
Make sure your child is eating 20 to 25 grams of fiber each day from healthy sources like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Replacing one processed snack with an apple and peanut butter can go a long way in improving their digestive health.
Dairy can also cause constipation in young children, especially if they are sensitive to cow's milk proteins. Dairy is a common food allergy or sensitivity, especially in children under age 3. Luckily, many children outgrow this sensitivity in time.
If you think your child is sensitive to cow's milk, try switching to almond, soy or coconut milk to see if their digestion improves.
New research continues to illustrate the connection between the mind and the gut. Stress and anxiety can have a big effect on digestion, causing constipation or diarrhea. Help your child by pinpointing stress triggers and suggesting ways to relax and cope to encourage better mental and digestive health.
If your child isn't drinking enough fluids each day, their poop can be hard and dry – making it difficult to push out. Ensure your child has at least 8 ounces of fluid (preferably water) with every meal as well as access to healthy drinks throughout the day. You may have to remind an active child to take a break from play to drink water. See more tips to encourage hydration.
5. Changes in routine
Even small changes to your child's routine can disturb healthy bowel habits. Common changes that increase your child's risk for constipation include:
- Traveling for a move or vacation
- Starting at a new school or daycare
- School breaks, including summer break
- Spending more time at a place other than home
Kids may be scared to go in new places or simply miss signals they need to poop because of a change in schedule. If you know your child's routine is changing, be sure to build in 10 to 30 minutes each day for them to try to use the restroom.
6. Video games
Surprisingly, a child's video game hobby may contribute to constipation. Kids may be so into their games that they simply forget to stop and go to the restroom – or they may purposely avoid going to the bathroom, so they don't miss the action.
In addition, video games may reduce how much exercise or physical activity your child gets. Physical activity is vital to keep the bowels moving. Put a limit on your child's screen time and remind them to use the bathroom when they are playing.
7. Potty training
Potty training is a big transition for little kids. It can leave some children feeling anxious, so they end up withholding stool instead of asking to use the bathroom. Try to make potty training fun and stress-free to help kids make the transition from diapers and don't be frustrated when accidents happen.
Some medicines or dietary supplements can slow the bowels and lead to constipation. Review your child's medications with their doctor to see if they may be the cause behind difficult bowel movements.
If you've addressed all these possible causes of constipation and your child still has trouble going, talk with their pediatrician. Rarely, constipation can be caused by an underlying GI condition, and you may need to visit a gastroenterologist.
The highly experienced GI specialists at Children's Health can work with your pediatrician to identify, diagnose and treat digestive issues in children. Learn more about our GI program and services.
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