A child may need treatment for constipation if their symptoms persist despite dietary changes. Laxatives, enemas, and some home remedies will help.
Constipation treatments aim to promote bowel movements. They may achieve this by improving digestive health, stimulating the intestines, or changing the consistency of stools so they are easier to pass.
This article outlines the different types of medications, home remedies, and complementary therapies that may help to treat constipation in children.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), constipation is a common problem in children, accounting for approximately 1 in 20 pediatric visits.
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that there are four main types of laxatives. They are:
- Osmotic laxatives: These draw water from the rest of the body into the bowels, softening stool and making it easier to pass. Osmotic laxatives usually work within 48–72 hours. Examples include:
- polyethylene glycol
- Stool softeners: Also known as surfactant laxatives, these increase the water content of stool, making it softer and easier to pass. Examples include arachis oil and docusate.
- Bulk-forming laxatives: These help bulk up the stool, easing its passage through the digestive system. Examples include ispaghula husk and methylcellulose.
- Stimulant laxatives: These stimulate the muscles that line the intestines, helping them move stools through the digestive system. Stimulant laxatives usually promote bowel movements within 6–12 hours and may be appropriate for children who do not respond well to the treatments above or dietary changes. Examples include:
- sodium picosulfate
An enema is a treatment that involves inserting a liquid solution directly into the rectum to help soften the stool and promote a bowel movement. Medical professionals may recommend enemas to help treat severe or persistent constipation.
Rectal sodium phosphate is a laxative that people use as an enema. It typically causes a bowel movement within 1–5 minutes and is suitable for children over 2 years of age.
The table below features some common brand-name laxatives alongside their generic name and laxative type.
|Brand name||Generic name||Laxative type|
|MiraLAX||polyethylene glycol 3350||osmotic laxative|
|Colace||docusate sodium||stool softener laxative|
|Milk of Magnesia||magnesium hydroxide||osmotic laxative|
Glycerin suppositories, such as Pedia-Lax glycerin suppositories, are also safe to use in infants and children. They are an osmotic laxative. However, they can cause rectal skin irritation.
Another treatment option is mineral oil. This is a type of lubricant laxative that is safe to use in children. However, it is
Stimulant laxatives are not recommended for infants.
People should only ever administer laxatives and enemas
Doing so helps ensure that a child is receiving an appropriate type and dose of medication according to their age and overall health status. This, in turn, helps reduce the risk of side effects and complications.
In some cases, constipation may be a sign of an underlying health condition that requires medical attention. A parent or caregiver should contact the child’s doctor if the child experiences any of the following:
Below are some home remedies that may help treat constipation in children:
- Increasing water intake: People should encourage children to drink plenty of
waterthroughout the day. This can help soften stool, making it easier to pass.
- Increasing fiber intake: Fiber helps bulk up stools and promotes regular bowel movements. It also draws water into the bowel, so it is important that people who increase their fiber intake also increase their fluid intake to prevent dehydration. Examples of fiber-rich foods
- Exercising: Exercise helps
stimulatebowel movements. Parents and caregivers should encourage children to engage in physical activity, such as playing outside or participating in sports.
- Massaging the abdomen: A 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis notes that abdominal massage may help stimulate the digestive tract and promote bowel movements in children. However, further studies are necessary to confirm these effects.
- Establishing a toilet routine: Parents and caregivers should encourage children to go to the bathroom at the
same timeeach day to help regulate bowel movements and prevent constipation.
- Drinking prune juice: Prune juice is a natural laxative that can help
softenthe stool and promote bowel movements. Doctor Prasanna Kapavarapu of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommends that children younger than 4 months receive 1 ounce of prune juice in 1 ounce of water 2–3 times per day, as a treatment for constipation. People should be aware that giving too much juice can lead to excessive sugar intake.
- Consuming psyllium husk: This is a good source of fiber that
can actas a beneficial supplement. Read the label on the product for guidance as to age limits.
A person should only use the above home remedies under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional.
Below are some complementary therapies that parents or caregivers may want to consider in addition to standard constipation treatments for children:
- Probiotics: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and help
promotehealthy digestion. A diet rich in probiotics may help relieve constipation. Some good sources of probiotics include:
- Massage therapy: Abdominal massage therapy can help
stimulatebowel movements and relieve constipation. A trained massage therapist can perform abdominal massage, or parents and caregivers can learn how to perform this therapy at home.
- Herbal remedies: Certain herbs, including senna and slippery elm, may help relieve constipation. However, people should consult a healthcare professional before giving any herbal remedies to children. Herbal remedies can cause side effects and may interact with other medications or supplements the child is taking.
- Chiropractic care: In a
2017 case report,a combination of chiropractic manipulation and gentle reflex therapy helped alleviate constipation in identical 7-month-old male twins who had presented with constipation since birth. However, more research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of chiropractic for constipation.
People should only ever use complementary therapies under the guidance of a doctor or other healthcare professional. Some therapies may cause side effects or may interact with certain medications or supplements.
It is also important that people do not use complementary therapies in place of prescription medications and treatments.
Constipation refers to difficulty passing stools or a reduction in the frequency of bowel movements. Constipation in children is a common problem, accounting for around 1 in 20 pediatric visits.
There are two main medical treatments for constipation in children: laxatives and enemas. Parents and caregivers should only ever administer these treatments according to a doctor’s instructions. Additional treatment options to consider include dietary changes, probiotic supplements, and regular exercise.
In some cases, constipation can indicate an underlying condition that requires medical attention. Parents and caregivers should notify their child’s doctor if the child experiences severe or persistent constipation or additional symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, or blood in the stool.