Causes of Constipation and How to Deal with It

10 June 2022
Posted by: Chelsea

Constipation is a sometimes distressing condition for children and parents alike.

It’s rarely serious, though it may at times become so. Here we’ll be looking at the typical causes of constipation and how to deal with it.

What is constipation?

This is essentially when a child or adult is unable to go to the toilet and defecate when they feel the need.

The position in younger children can be a little more complicated because unlike in the vast majority of adult cases, in children, constipation can also in a sense be ‘voluntary’. That is when the child, for any one of several possible reasons, is deliberately trying to avoid ‘going for a poo’.


Contrary to some mythology, some children may only need to defecate as little as perhaps 2-3 times each week. That in itself is not a sign of constipation.

Other children may need to go twice each day. There are no universal rules.

The way to tell the difference is to look for subtle signs in your child:

  • they normally go regularly but suddenly seemed to have stopped;
  • they’re expending a lot of effort trying to go but are failing;
  • they’re not going and that is accompanied by additional symptoms like pain and discomfort or irritability. They may also show an increasing reluctance to even try to go.

In all these situations, constipation might be the issue.


These break down into two categories – a) those where the child is playing no conscious role and clearly wants to go and b) those where the child is fully or partly simply holding it all in.

External conditions

The commonest causes are

  • an infection or ‘tummy upset’ means the bowel isn’t quite working as it should;
  • their diet is not providing them with sufficient quantities of the materials the bowel needs to function well (meaning fruit, cereals and vegetables, all sometimes referred to generally as “roughage”);
  • they have eaten something that disagrees with them;
  • there is another potentially more serious underlying health condition (uncommon but not unknown).

Infections and bugs usually resolve themselves quickly if your child is healthy, though sometimes a doctor might prescribe antibiotics where they might be useful. Similarly, problems related to eating something that didn’t sit well in their body are usually short-lived and resolve themselves.

There are vast amounts of information available online and in health centres related to healthy eating for children. Consult these if you have any doubts about whether your child is getting sufficient ‘roughage’.

In terms of underlying health conditions, see the section below on using your doctor.

Psychological factors

There are a huge number of reasons why your child may suddenly decide they’re going to stop pooing or sometimes peeing (or both). Just a sample might include

  • they don’t like toilets and are afraid of them;
  • it hurts a little when they go and they’ve decided the solution is to stop going;
  • a friend has told them it’s what they’re currently doing;
  • they’re seeking more attention from you.

It can be almost impossible to identify the causes in these circumstances.

Involving your doctor

If your child’s frequency has declined or even stopped, there’s typically no need to panic.

If you have a baby being breastfed, you should probably speak to a doctor immediately. Constipation in breastfed babies is very rare and might suggest another condition.

For older children, you can probably leave it for several days without major concern but it might be sensible to call the surgery for general advice or speak with a paediatric nurse. Unless there are other symptoms and assuming it’s just been a few days, they’re likely to advise that there’s nothing to worry about.

You should get medical advice if

  • your child has not defecated for more than a few days (less than a week);
  • they have signs of being in pain or discomfort even when not trying to poo;
  • they have a temperature;
  • there are signs of blood when they’re attempting to go (though don’t panic – this is usually nothing to worry about and is due to minor tears as a result of straining).

Home treatments

Here are a few tips

  • don’t give your child laxatives without speaking to a doctor, pharmacist or nurse first;
  • keep their fluids up;
  • don’t pressurise them. Try to make ‘poo-time’ a fun and relaxed game;
  • talk to them openly about the problem without frightening them. Try to see if it is something they’re doing;
  • increase the amount of healthy natural fibre in their diet.

In the vast majority of cases, constipation resolves itself in 2-3 days with home treatment. However, longer periods will require a consultation with your doctor.

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