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What Causes Constipation in Children?

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 2/26/2011

What causes constipation in children? If you’re a parent wondering about the answer to this question, keep reading.

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    Lack of Privacy

    Children who do not have difficulty moving their bowels at home may have difficulty doing so at school or other places because of a lack of privacy. Because other children and adults can use public bathrooms at the same time, a child may feel that he does not have enough privacy and hold his stool until he gets home. If this occurs repeatedly, constipation may result.

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    Dietary Changes

    Children should eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. eMedicineHealth explains that children who eat a lot of processed foods or high-sugar foods tend to get constipated more than children who eat a variety of foods. Although adults can combat constipation with a high-fiber diet, this type of diet has not been proved to reduce constipation in children.

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    Toilet Avoidance

    Some children purposely avoid going to the bathroom, which allows stool to harden and dry out. This leads to constipation. Some children avoid going to the bathroom simply because they want to play or enjoy other activities. Victims of sexual abuse may also avoid using the bathroom, resulting in constipation, bedwetting and other signs of abuse.

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    Formula Changes

    Babies who drink breast milk have more bowel movements per week than formula-fed infants, which could contribute to constipation in some children. Switching from one formula to another may also cause constipation.

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    Acute Illness

    What causes constipation in children who experience intense illnesses? Anything from a high fever to dehydration can cause constipation. In the case of dehydration, the child does not have enough fluid to soften the stool and make it easier to move. When the stool hardens and dries out, constipation occurs.

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    Medical Disorders

    Some medical disorders interfere with the normal functioning of the digestive system in children. Hypothyroidism may cause decreased activity of the muscles responsible from moving food through the digestive system and expelling it from the body. A genetic condition known as Hirschsprung’s disease causes constipation from birth. Children with this condition do not have a type of nerve cell necessary for the colon to work properly. Babies with Down syndrome have an increased risk of developing this condition. Electrolyte levels affect bowel habits, so any change in calcium, sodium or potassium levels may lead to constipation. Because the nervous system works with the digestive system to eliminate waste from the body, children with spinal cord injuries or nervous system disorders may experience chronic constipation. The lack of physical activity in children who have nervous system disorders also leads to constipation.

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    Prior Bad Experience

    If a child experiences pain during a bowel movement, she may remember this pain and avoid having a bowel movement for causing the same pain a second time. Coercive or forceful potty training may also lead to constipation in children.

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    Medications

    Several medications increase the risk of constipation in children. These medications include antacids, antidepressants, codeine, OTC cold medications, anti-seizure medications and chemotherapy drugs.

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    References

    National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Constipation in Children

    eMedicineHealth: Constipation in Children