Constipation is really, very truly, no fun for anyone. No fun for baby or child, no fun for the parent who worries and watches and cleans the clogged toilet, and clearly nothing wonderful for the sister or brother who waits while a family supports a child in the room next door. In general, constipation is a frustrating, sometimes hugely embarrassing, and often a chronic problem for young children. In my experience, parents worry a lot about hard infant or toddler poop in the diaper (goal is always peanut butter consistency or softer) but it’s when constipation sneaks up on many families in school-aged children that BIG suffering ensues.
I can’t say this loud enough: if you’re worried about constipation in your child do consider seeing your pediatrician, nurse, family doc or physician assistant to make a long-term plan. Constipation DOES get better but do know it’s over weeks to months. When your child’s intestinal tubing is stretched out for weeks it takes weeks to re-configure sometimes — quick fixes won’t be long term solutions. More below on which remedies to use and how.
Constipation sneaks up because after children are toilet trained and wiping themselves (around age 4 or 5) many parents no longer gaze in the toilet bowl so gone are the days of tracking daily poops. Before you reach for OTC medications, consider what is normal and what is not normal when it comes to poop (below). I usually break this down for children (and parents) in visual terms. I talk about things you find outside:
In general, poop in the toilet can look like a pond, a snake, a log, or a pebble. When it comes to poop, we’re always looking for snakes. It seems to me that framed this way, school age children can do a better job knowing if they’re constipated or not. We’re looking for Snakes in the Lake, people! Frame it this way with your child and perhaps they will be more likely to get a glimpse of what they produce in the toilet? Or at least a report?
Lots of foods, hydration and OTC medicines can quickly change the game with constipation. Before I detail more specifics on constipation and highlight some remedies, I do want to call attention to some potential concerns of polyethylene glycol (PEG 3350). The medicine PEG 3350 is an odorless, tasteless laxative that can be easily diluted in juice or water. It’s a big polymer and can’t be absorbed by the intestine so it works by binding to water so that water ingested can’t leave the intestines, colon, and rectum. The great news is it doesn’t cause cramping or more pain and isn’t addictive. Used daily (often for days or weeks) the powder binds to water and disallows the colon to dehydrate the poop so it just doesn’t get hard. Therefore the poop that comes out is soft and often helps produce less painful pooping — and often it comes out more often! It’s commonly sold under both brand (Miralax) and various generic names. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved its use in adults, not children. Currently, PEG 3350 is being studied as well as the bi-products of PEG 3350, specifically ethylene glycol (EG) and diethylene glycol (DEG), to determine whether it might be absorbed by children and whether use of the laxatives is linked to development of psychiatric or neurodevelopmental problems. The New York Times has done 2 stories on this topic: one in 2012 and one more recently in 2015, both worth a read if you are debating giving your child PEG3350. For children and families with severe constipation often the benefits of using it far outweigh the concerns.