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What to do when your toddler is constipated

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Mum's top tip

"Our daughter had terrible tummy ache when she couldn’t go, and went off her food. Now we give her a fruit smoothie every day as well as dried apricots. Lots of fluids and exercise also help."

Naomi Leese, mum to Lizzie and Billy

Constipation means passing infrequent, hard poos. There isn’t an exact definition as it depends on what’s normal for your child, so watch for a change from this. As a rough guide, fewer than three poos a week counts as constipation. Baby Club expert, Dr Carol Cooper explains what to look out for.

How common is constipation in a toddler?

Up to one in four toddlers experience constipation. It becomes a long-term problem for about a third of them, especially if it isn’t treated early on.

Signs of constipation

  • Small hard, pellet-like poos
  •  Occasional very large poos
  • Straining more than usual
  • Pain when passing a poo
  • A little blood on the loo paper, from the skin of the back passage tearing as your child poos
  • Tummy ache, poor appetite, irritability and feeling sick can also occur
  • Regular soiling (poo in the pants) can be a symptom of bad constipation – runny poo can flow around a hard poo and leak out without your child being able to control it.

Causes of constipation

  • Not drinking enough 
  • Not enough fibre in the diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Dislike of using the toilet or potty
  • A change in surroundings or routine
  • One recent hard poo, which puts them off the next visit to the loo.

Toilet troubles

‘Hanging on’ to a poo is common, as toddlers are often more interested in other things. You may notice him clenching his bottom, crossing his legs and rocking back and forth. Eventually he can hold on no longer, but by then the poo may be hard, large and difficult to pass. A gentle reminder can help, but pressured toilet-training can also lead to constipation.

How to treat mild constipation

  • More fruit and veg – prunes, apricots (fresh and dried), carrots, green veg and baked beans are good
  • Higher-fibre bread and wholegrain cereal (but not whole bran, as this is not suitable for children)
  • More drinks – but not sugary ones
  • Lively play each day
  • A pleasant toilet – not cold, dark or with a resident spider!
  • Matter-of-fact encouragement to use the potty or loo at regular intervals, for instance after meals and before going out; always allow plenty of time.

If this doesn't help, talk to your health visitor, pharmacist or doctor.

When to visit the doctor

Serious constipation won’t be solved just by changes to meals. So don’t delay seeing the doctor if it lasts for more than a few days, if your toddler has pain, or if you suspect a fear or phobia. Soiling is another indicator that you should see your doctor, if you think it’s caused by constipation.

They may prescribe laxatives, and some parents don’t like the idea of this. However, without early treatment the bowel can stretch, making it even more sluggish and turning into a long-term problem that causes your toddler pain and distress.

If your toddler has unusual symptoms such as vomiting, fever, passing slime or blood, get advice without delay, as this may not be simple constipation.

Foods to help your toddler ‘Go’