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Constipation in Infants and Children Causes, Remedies, and OTC Treatments

Facts and Definition of Constipation in Infants and Children

Constipation occurs commonly in children. Still, not many parents actually seek advice from the doctor for this condition. Constipation describes the infrequent passage of stools (bowel movements) or the passage of hard stools. Any definition of constipation depends upon comparison with how often the child normally passes stools and with the usual consistency of his or her stools.

Many children normally pass stools as far apart as every few days. Regardless, you should treat hard stools that are difficult to pass and those that happen only every three days as constipation.

How Can I Tell If My Infant or Child Is Constipated (Symptoms)?

Generally, if a child has fewer than three bowel movements per week, and the stools are hard or painful to pass, he or she may have constipation.

Medical Diseases and Conditions That Cause Chronic Constipation in Babies and Children

Infants and children with constipation are treated differently than adults, because patterns of bowel movements change from the time they are born until they reach the age of 3 or 4 years. The majority of children with constipation do not have a medical disease or disorder causing the constipation. Rarely, a disorder causes infants and children to have significant problems moving their bowels.

Examples of medical disorders that can cause chronic constipation.

  • Hypothyroidism (reduced activity of the thyroid gland) is a condition that causes decreased activity of the intestinal muscles along with many other symptoms. All newborns should be tested for hypothyroidism as part of the newborn screening blood test (heel prick or Guthrie test). This condition is usually diagnosed when a baby is very young but can occur at any age.
  • True constipation in infants and children that has been present since birth may be from Hirschsprung's disease. In this rare congenital condition, a segment of the colon lacks ganglion cells (a type of nerve cell). The affected colon cannot receive directions from the brain to work properly. Most infants with Hirschsprung's disease display symptoms within the first few weeks of life. They may be underweight or small for their age. They may vomit and pass small stools, which are described as ribbon-like. Hirschsprung's disease is generally more common in boys and in babies with Down syndrome. If Hirschsprung's disease is suspected, you need to take your child to a specialist (gastroenterologist or pediatric surgeon) for further tests.
  • Diabetes is common medical problem associated with constipation.
  • Alterations in blood mineral and electrolyte levels (especially calciumor potassium) can change the bowel habits.
  • Although other symptoms of lead poisoning should be more obvious, children with chronic lead exposure may have constipation.
  • Cystic fibrosis causes constipation in children by many mechanisms.
  • Children with disorders of the nervous system (such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, or spinal cord problems) display a high rate of constipation because they spend prolonged time in one position, experience abnormal colon movement, or lack coordination in moving their bowels.
Last Reviewed 9/11/2017

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Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your child's symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Constipation or changes in the stool persist after 24 hours of home treatment in a baby younger than 3 months.
  • New constipation persists after 1 week of home treatment in a child age 3 months to 11 years.
  • Chronic constipation:
    • Is causing new problems.
    • Has gotten worse.
    • Is accompanied by other bowel habit changes, such as changes in the size, shape, or consistency of stools.
  • Rectal pain develops, increases, or lasts longer than 1 week.
  • Abdominal pain develops or increases.
  • Fever develops.
  • Blood in the stool develops, increases, or lasts longer than 1 week.
  • Your child's symptoms become more severe or frequent.

SOURCE: Healthwise

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