KidsMD Health Topics

Constipation in Children

  • How common is constipation in children?

    Constipation in children is a common concern for parents, especially among parents of children who are potty training. Constipation results in 2.5 million health care provider visits every year. School-age children also experience constipation. In fact, almost 5 percent of all pediatrician visits are in some way related to constipation. (At least 25 percent of visits to pediatric gastroenterology specialists are due to problems with constipation.) 

    What is constipation in children?

    Constipation in children is defined as:

    • a decrease in frequency of bowel movements, compared to a child's usual pattern (some health care providers define constipation as fewer than 3 bowel movements per week)
    • the passage of hard, oftentimes large-caliber, dry bowel movements
    • bowel movements that are difficult or painful to push out

    Children 1 to 4 years old typically have a bowel movement once or twice a day, and more than 90 percent will go at least every other day. However, it’s normal for some children to have a bowel movement 3 times a day or 3 times a week; it depends on the child.


    What are the types of constipation in children?

    Constipation is typically described as being either organic or functional. Organic constipation is caused by a diagnosed medical condition, like colon disease or a neurological problem. Functional constipation means there is no identifiable cause. Functional constipation is the most common form of constipation, and while it is a concern, typically there is not a serious medical condition associated with it. 

    How does Boston Children's Hospital approach constipation in children?

    Boston Children’s Hospital is the #1 ranked pediatric gastroenterology department (U.S. News & World Report, 2014), and our team includes the best doctors and clinicians for children. Our expansive care team can help parents struggling with a diagnosis to find a solution by providing individualized treatment plans and access to more specialized care than any other hospital. 

    To best understand the cause of your child's constipation, a clinician from the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition will assess how serious your child's constipation is by asking if your child:

    • has hard or small stools that are difficult or painful to pass
    • consistently skips days without having normal bowel movements
    • has uncharacteristically large stools
    • has stomach pain, poor appetite, crankiness and/or bleeding from the anus
    In most cases, there is no need for testing prior to treatment for constipation in children. However, depending on the severity of the problem, your doctor may order x-rays or other tests to properly diagnosis the source of the constipation.

    Once the root and severity of your child's constipation have been determined, a treatment plan will be designed based on your child's age and personality. For some, constipation can be corrected by changes in diet, like increasing their intake of water, fiber or fresh fruit. Other children may need medications like laxatives or stool softeners to help them go. 

    In rare cases, children may need to have an excessive build-up of stool "flushed" from their colon. This usually is done with laxatives, suppositories or enemas if needed.  

    For more information on constipation or to speak with a member of Boston Children's Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, please call 617-355-6058617-355-6058.

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The future of pediatrics will be forged by thinking differently, breaking paradigms and joining together in a shared vision of tackling the toughest challenges before us.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO