Constipation in young children
Constipation is common in childhood, particularly when children are being potty trained at around two to three years old.
Symptoms of constipation in children
Your child may be constipated if:
- they don't poo at least three times a week
- their poo is often large, hard and difficult to push out
- their poo looks like "rabbit droppings" or little pellets
If your child is already potty trained, soiled pants can be another sign of constipation, as runny poo (diarrhoea) may leak out around the hard, constipated poo. This is called overflow soiling.
If your child is constipated, they may find it painful to poo. This can create a vicious circle: the more it hurts, the more they hold back. The more constipated they get, the more it hurts, and so on.
Even if pooing isn't painful, once your child is really constipated, they may stop wanting to go to the toilet altogether.
Why children get constipated
Your child may be constipated because they:
- aren't eating enough high-fibre foods like fruit and veg
- aren't drinking enough
- are having problems with potty (or toilet) training
- are worried or anxious about something, such as moving house, starting nursery or the arrival of a new baby
Find out about other causes of constipation in children.
How to treat your child's constipation
If you think your child may be constipated, take them to the GP. The treatment for constipation depends on your child’s age.
The longer your child is constipated, the more difficult it can be for them to get back to normal, so make sure you get help early.
Laxatives are often recommended for children who are eating solid foods, alongside diet and lifestyle changes.
It may take several months for the treatments to work, but keep trying until they do. Remember that laxative treatment may make your child's overflow soiling worse before it gets better.
Once your child's constipation has been dealt with, it's important to stop it coming back. Your GP may advise that your child keeps taking laxatives for a while to make sure their poo stays soft enough to push out regularly.
Try to stay calm
Getting constipated and soiling their clothes isn't something your child is doing on purpose, so there's no reason to get cross with them.
You may both find the situation stressful, but staying calm and relaxed is the best attitude to help your child deal with the problem.
Your health visitor or GP can offer helpful tips.
Read about treating constipation in babies.
How to prevent constipation
- Make sure your child has plenty to drink – offer breastfed babies who aren’t eating solids yet plenty of breastfeeds. Formula-fed babies can have extra drinks of water between their formula feeds. See more advice on drinks for babies and toddlers.
- Give your child a variety of foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables, which are a good source of fibre. See what to feed young children.
- Encourage your child to be physically active. For more information, read the physical activity guidelines for children aged under five years.
- Get your child into a routine of regularly sitting on the potty or toilet, after meals or before bed, and praise them whether or not they poo. This is particularly important for potty-trained boys, who may forget about pooing once they are weeing standing up.
- Make sure your child can rest their feet flat on the floor or a step when they're using the potty or toilet, to get them in a good position for pooing. ERIC, The Children's Bowel & Bladder Charity's leaflet, Children’s Bowel Problems (PDF, 2.48Mb) shows this position.
- Ask if they feel worried about using the potty or toilet – some children don't want to poo in certain situations, such as at nursery or school.
- Stay calm and reassuring, so that your child doesn't see going to the toilet as a stressful situation – you want your child to see pooing as a normal part of life, not something to be ashamed of.
If you'd like advice about taking the stress out of going to the toilet for your child, speak to your health visitor.
More information and support
ERIC, The Children's Bowel and Bladder Charity, is a UK charity for families affected by bedwetting, daytime wetting, constipation and soiling. ERIC has a freephone helpline on 0808 169 9949 (Monday to Thursday, 10am to 2pm) or you can email the service via a webform at www.eric.org.uk/helpline.
Take a look at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guideline on constipation in children and young people.
Page last reviewed: 31 March 2017
Next review due: 31 March 2020