Constipation in children and infants

Constipation in children and infants

This is a topic I come across on a daily basis and it is very important in pediatrics.
It is also an interesting topic that is affected both by our physical and emotional factors, especially in children over the age of one, on whom I will be focusing on in the following article. I will dedicate the last part of the article to discussing constipation in children under the age of one.

From my personal experience, constipation is very common in children. The appropriate treatment of constipation, especially in the long run, can solve many issues. On the other hand, inappropriate recognition of the problem or failed management could leave a negative impact on the child for many years.
Parents have a central role in the recognition and treatment of constipation.

Let’s hit the road.

What is the definition of constipation in children?

Actually, a clear-cut definition of constipation in children does not exist. When we discuss constipation in children we need to take several factors into account, including the consistency of the stool (soft or hard), the number of stools per day and the ease or difficulty at which the passing of stool occurs.
For example, a child who passes a soft stool every 3 days without any issues does not suffer from constipation. However, a child who passes a hard stool with great difficulty and pain once every two days, does indeed suffer from constipation.
Any efforts to tabulate the number of stool and age of the child will miss the main point behind the definition of constipation.
Theoretically speaking, according to our medical books, constipation is defined as a symptom that has been ongoing for at least two weeks and includes difficulty in passing stool that leads to discomfort for the child.
In my opinion, one does not need to wait for as long as 2 weeks of symptoms in order to diagnose constipation.

What are the main causes of constipation?

Factors causing constipation are commonly divided into two:
1. Organic causes of constipation, i.e due to a physical cause
2. Idiopathic or functional constipation, i.e due to abnormal function
The first term, i.e constipation due to an organic cause, refers to the child with a past medical history, where constipation is a secondary symptom or a result of their underlying medical problem. There could be many potential ‘problems’; from anatomical to metabolic issues, neurologic causes and to signs due to the adverse effects of drugs.
That is why, even in a normally healthy child, it is important to refer to a pediatrician to consult with them regarding the constipation. The pediatrician will listen to your story, perform a good physical examination and rule out organic causes of the constipation.
But in most day-to-day cases of constipation that present at the clinic, the pediatrician usually encounters normally healthy children, without a clear cause of constipation, and that is when constipation is referred to ‘functional’.
Sometimes, parents will describe their child as one who has been suffering from constipation since infancy. Other times, the constipation will have just started, without any past medical history.

What are the causes of functional constipation in children?

There are many causes to functional constipation. These include:
– “Bad” dietary habits (low-fiber diets) in children who do not drink enough fluids.
– Incorrect restraining/stool passage habits, sometimes accompanying significant life changes such as diaper weaning, use of public bathrooms or a ‘traumatic’ event, such as the birth of a younger child…
– Some children simply tend to suffer more from constipation ‘by their character’.
– Sometimes constipation is a result of a vicious cycle that develops right before our eyes – child does not pass stool because of an acute, unknown reason – whatever it may be. Their stool hardens, and this leads to pain in the child’s next attempt at defecation. This pain prevents them from trying to pass stool, the constipation worsens and the cycle starts all over again.

What starts the vicious cycle that leads to constipation?

If one were to simplify complex biological matters one could probably say that the mechanism behind defecation is common to us all.
The contraction of intestinal muscles allows soft stool to reach the rectum. This stimulates the body to pass stool, causes certain muscles to contract while others (around the anus) relax and allows for painless passage of stool.
If anything along this process goes wrong, for any reason whatsoever, hard stool accumulates in the rectum, the passage of stool becomes painful, both physically (pain and discomfort in the anal area that could lead to the formation of an anal fissure), and emotionally (children tend to remember painful events).
As a result, the child avoids defecating and learns how to retain stool. Intestinal contraction becomes less efficient, more dry stool accumulates in the sigmoid area (the last part of the gastrointestinal tract) and this turns into a vicious cycle. The child avoids defecating even more, there is more stool retention and so forth.
Sometimes, watery stool, which reaches the lower tract from the upper gastrointestinal tract, slides its way around the hardened stool and manages to pass through the anus, voluntarily or involuntarily (called incontinence or soiling).

What are the symptoms of constipation in children? How can I tell if my child has constipation?

This sounds like a topic that could be easily noticed by parents. However, unfortunately, some of the signs of constipation could be misleading and puzzling.
In addition to hardened stool, decreased frequency of passage of stools, increased efforts in defecation and pain during defecation, there are several other symptoms that are important to elaborate on.
Non-specific abdominal pain – intermittent abdominal pain during the day that is relieved after the passage of stool (the bowel movement itself could be painful). However, it is important to make sure that there are no “red flags” – which means that the pain does not wake the child up at night.
Soiling – this is a very specific sign of constipation. This refers to the child who occasionally leaks stool into his/her underwear. This is the same stool I was referring to when I mentioned the watery stool that manages to bypass the hardened stool that has accumulated and reach the anus.
Paradoxical diarrhea – this is pretty confusing, but some of the children who suffer from constipation are actually taken to the doctor because their parents think their child suffers from diarrhea. These children have soft stool leaking into their underwear or toilet several times a day, sometimes this passing of stool is voluntarily and at other times, involuntary.
For these children, the problem isn’t diarrhea but rather constipation, which is to be correctly treated for the resolution of their symptoms.
Urinary incontinence or retention – sometimes children avoid urinating. This is because the contraction of urinary muscles for urination also leads to the contraction of intestinal muscles, and for the child suffering from constipation this could be very painful. On the other hand, severe constipation can cause the leaking of involuntary urine.
Blood on defecation – small quantities of fresh blood can be seen on the stool (not mixed with the stool). Usually, this is a result of an injury to the anal region (fissure) or even a bleeding hemorrhoid.
Avoidance of eating and loss of weight – this is a symptom that is mentioned in our medical books. I’ve seen that children who suffer from constipation sometimes have a decrease in appetite since eating stimulates our intestines and activates them. However, I would like to emphasize, that despite what the books state, loss of weight is a “red flag” and is a sign to seek medical attention promptly.
Typically, but not always, there is relief of most symptoms when there is passage of a large quantity of stool. The symptoms often return several hours or days later.
To summarize, it is very important to know the signs of constipation but more so to realize what the red flags are. These red flags include pain that wakes the child at night, abdominal pain with vomiting, loss of weight and passage of stool with blood or mucous.

What are the signs that the pediatrician will look for when examining the child with constipation?

The pediatrician will start by taking a detailed medical history. This will include questions about underlying medical conditions and a series of questions about nutrition and bowel habits. The age at which the child began suffering from constipation is very important. It is also important that the pediatrician notes any signs of constipation immediately after birth. The child’s emotional state and the family’s response to his bowel habits and movements are to be noted as well.
The pediatrician will then go on to perform a physical examination which will focus on an abdominal examination, observation of and sometimes examination of the anus.
In prolonged constipation the pediatrician can sometimes palpate fullness or lumps of stool (pebble-poop) in the left lower quadrant of the abdomen.
Cuts or fissures can sometimes be seen around the anus, ‘pebble poop’ can be felt and the anal sphincter assessed.

Does the child with constipation need any labs or imaging done?

Usually, these children don’t require further workup but this is up to the physician’s discretion. Generally speaking, functional constipation does not require any laboratory workup.
Should the doctor decide to perform blood work it usually includes checking for calcium levels in the blood and thyroid function tests. Testing for Celiac Disease (gluten sensitivity, hyperlink for further reading here) is to be considered, as these children tend to suffer more from constipation.
In the vast majority of cases, imaging/ultrasound are unnecessary in the diagnosis of constipation.

How can we treat constipation?

First of all, it is important to emphasize that early treatment can really prevent ‘severe’ disease. Treatment of constipation cannot be done in just one shot and requires the continuous and persistent compliance of the child and his family.
The treatment consists of several aspects. Usually, any attempt to treat constipation without combining all the different aspects of treatments is bound to fail.
Psychological and emotional support for the child and his family – as for the child, he or she suffers from great frustration. He could be in pain, afraid and disappointed from themself. Parents can sometimes be supportive and understanding but at times they can also suffer from anxiety and express anger or disappointment from the child. In such cases, calming the child and his family down and reassuring them that his or her problem will resolve soon is very helpful. Read more of the psychological and emotional support in children with severe constipation (encopresis) in the next link.
Behavioural management – note the fine difference between the emotional and behavioural aspects of treatment. Behavioural modifications include instilling healthy bowel habits in the child. Children are to learn that when they feel the need to defecate they are to do so and not postpone the act of defecation until their favorite tv show episode is over for example.
Parents are to seat their child on the toilet, several times a day, preferably after meals. The act of simply sitting on the toilet seat is to be encouraged, regardless of the end result (i.e whether or not stool is passed).
The placing of a stool beneath the child’s legs is recommended as it improves the child’s posture and allows for easier bowel movement.
Parents’ anxiety is not to be expressed. Instead, the parents and child are encouraged to pass this toilet-sitting time together by reading a book for example and wait patiently until a large ‘boom’ is heard.
If the child has a specific problem, such as going to the toilet at school, one should try to find a solution for his specific problem. Healthy bowel habits could also include set times for defecation such as after dinner, at home. In addition, an increase in physical exercise is recommended as it allows for regular activity of the intestines.
As the child improves, it is important to encourage them and give them positive feedback.
Nutritional support – the right diet can lead to softer stool and easier bowel movements. Including dietary fiber, usually found in fruits and vegetables, cereals and more in the daily diet is recommended. Cutting down on products that worsen constipation such as rice, bananas, snacks, etc. is also important. The child should be encouraged to drink lots of fluids, preferably water.
And just a quick reminder – it can be difficult to make nutritional changes to the child’s diet alone and sometimes change in the entire household’s dietary habits is needed.

What is the pharmacological treatment of constipation in children?

These be divided into several groups:
1. Lactulose – this is a syrup that causes water retention in the stool and leads to the formation of soft stool and diarrhea. There are many reasons why this is not first-line treatment in healthy children. They are used in normally healthy children only in exceptional cases.
2. Paraffin oil – in the past we used to recommend paraffin oil as therapy, including frying an egg using this oil. Yes, disgusting. Thankfully, the use of paraffin oil is not common these days as the alternative drugs proved to be much better.
3. Polyethylene glycol – this substance is not absorbed into the intestine but does causes fluid retention in stool and the softening of stools. The powder is tasteless, odorless and colorless and can be added to any drink the child enjoys drinking. These powders are over the counter, but dosing ranges are wide so it is best to refer to a doctor for dosing (read more in this link).
4. Ointment for anal region – in cases of anal fissures the doctor will usually prescribe a topical ointment that allows for relaxation of the anal muscles. This anesthetizes the region and allows for the passing of stool in a less painful manner.
5. Mechanical release – enemas or glycerol suppositories. This is less acceptable as a first-line treatment but glycerol suppositories are often used for infants under the age of one.

Which drug should I use and when? When should the drug be stopped in children?

When discussing pharmacological therapy, it is important to distinguish between the different goals of treatment.
Stool softeners causes stool coming from the upper tract to soften. This is an excellent choice of treatment and is the best option for prevention of constipation. However, if there is a large piece of hard stool in the intestine, sometimes it will need to be mechanically released before we can proceed. That is when glycerol suppositories (a stimulant laxatives) can be used for extreme cases.
If an anal fissure is suspected, an ointment will be prescribed.
Therefore, as you can see, the combination of medications is sometimes needed as well.

How long should I use the medications for?

This is an important topic as parents usually tend to stop treatment too early.
Assuming we are referring to treatment with polyethylene glycol powders, which is the basis of any pharmacological treatment, parents tend to stop administration of this medicine as soon as the child has had one day of good bowel movement.
Had I told parents that their child should have two apples a day, they would have probably tried to give their child two apples a day for 100 years. That is really the mindset parents should adopt when it comes to treatment of constipation as well (a wise person once told me that the treatment should be continued twice as long as the time the child suffered from constipation). If need be, the dosing can be reduced, but a sudden stop is not recommended.
For example, if a child who was on 17 grams of polyethylene glycol per day for a week when things start to look better, they can now move on to taking 10 grams per day for a week and then reduce the dose further to 5 grams per day for another week before stopping. The purpose is to reach a point where the child has one soft, easy bowel movement per day.
In any case, it is best to consult with a physician regarding the length of treatment and rate of dose reduction.
And most importantly, remember to combine pharmacological medications with all the other supportive therapeutic recommendations.

What about constipation in infants under the age of one?

Please remember:
Breastfed infants – stool habits vary. Anywhere from seven stools a day to one per week can be considered normal.
Infants that are formula fed – stool habits vary as well.
Throughout the first year of life, as the child grows, the number of stools passed per day decreases and the consistency of the stool slowly becomes harder.
The best way to identify constipation in infants in these ages is by observing the consistency of the stool and the ease at which the infant passes it rather than the number of stools per day. If the infant seems to be suffering when passing the stool and the stool is hard and pebble-like – therapy should be considered.
Therapy in infants under the age of 1 year is slightly different and more complex and depends on the suspected reason behind the constipation as well as the specific age of the child.
One of the less common reasons for constipation includes cow-milk protein allergy (read more here). In such cases, the pediatrician will usually recommend switching the infant’s formula. I think that before switching to a different formula it is important to consult with your doctor so as to not to reach a point where you are switching formulas every other day when there really is no actual need for it. Such changes can drive both the infant and his family up the wall.
For infants that have begun the introduction of solid foods, the addition of tomato juice or mashed fruits can be considered. Older infants can be treated with polyethylene glycol. In any case, massaging the infant’s belly in a clockwise, cycling and gentle manner and flexing the legs towards the belly can be beneficial.
In cases of fecal impaction, glycerol suppositories can be considered.

In summary, remember the main point for this chapter and the different therapeutic aspects in children. Identify and property treat your child constipation together with your trusted pediatrician.

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