Constipation in children: symptoms, causes and relief

Last Reviewed: October 2022

Constipation is a problem for 1 in 3 children. It commonly starts around the potty training stage and can also affect babies.

It is a medical problem that needs treating properly to stop it getting worse. Constipation won’t go away by itself.

Keep reading to find out the common causes, the signs to look out for and how to relieve constipation in your child.

Read our main factsheets Advice for children with constipation, Advice for children with day time bladder problems and Advice for children with night time wetting for more information, including downloadable PDFs of the factsheets.

Causes of constipation in children

There are many different causes of constipation in children. It can be difficult to find just one obvious reason.

Here are the common causes of constipation and risk factors:

  • Most children have what's known as functional constipation. This means that there's no underlying physical cause. Their bowel should work properly, but for some reason they’ve become constipated.
  • An underlying organic problem with the bowel such as Hirschsprung’s Disease or Spina Bifida. This is usually picked up soon after birth, but not always.
  • When children don’t drink enough or have a well-balanced diet their poo can become hard to pass.
  • An illness such as a stomach bug can cause dehydration and some medications can be constipating.
  • Children with additional needs such as autism or a learning disability are more likely to have tummy problems and become constipated.
  • A change in routine such as starting potty training, starting school or feeling worried about something. When children feel anxious it can be hard for them to relax on the potty or toilet.

Children’s constipation symptoms

Common constipation symptoms in children include:

  • Doing fewer than 4 poos in a week. Ideally, children should pass some soft poo every day, or at least every other day.
  • Pooing more than 3 times a day. This can show that their bowel is full, and poo is leaking out a bit at a time (soiling). It might be hard bits of poo, soft or even liquid poo called overflow.
  • Poo that looks like little pellets or rabbit droppings.
  • Big poos, or lots of poo all at once.
  • Pain when they poo and needing to strain. There may even be some bleeding when they poo or afterwards. Hard, large poos can cause an ‘anal fissure’ or small tear in the bottom.
  • Having a swollen, painful tummy. They might not feel like eating, or even feel sick.
  • Smelly poo, wind, and bad breath.
  • Bladder problems such as doing lots of small wees, needing to wee urgently, bedwetting and urinary tract infections.
  • Difficulty with potty training including children who refuse to poo unless they are wearing a nappy.

Take a look at our Poo Checker to find your child’s poo type and what it means:

Bristol Stool Scale for Children

Watch our animation to understand how constipation affects children and how it should be treated:

How to relieve constipation in children

The best way to get rid of constipation is to treat it as early as possible. The longer it's left, the harder it will be to treat.

Here's what to do next if you think your child is constipated:

  • Use our poo diary to keep track of their bowel habits for a few days.  Record what their poo looks like using the Poo Checker, how often they're going and if they're in any pain.
  • Book an appointment for your child to be seen by your GP. Take the poo diary with you.
  • The doctor should examine your child and check to make sure the constipation hasn’t been caused by an underlying condition.
  • If your GP diagnoses your child with constipation, they need to follow the treatment pathway as recommended by NICE Guidelines.

Constipation is not a problem that can be helped by a change in diet only or waiting for your child to ‘grow out of it.’

Using laxatives to treat constipation

  • Laxatives are the recommended treatment for constipation relief in children.
  • Macrogol laxative such as Movicol, Laxido or CosmoCol should be prescribed to soften their poo and help move it along.
  • These laxatives need to be given correctly for them to work properly. Get more information on how to use macrogol laxatives.
  • Overflow soiling may get worse before it gets better. There is no magic wand for treating  constipation. It takes patience and hard work.
  • Most children start with disimpaction – this means having increasing amounts of laxatives to clear out the backlog of poo. Find out more about this process in our step-by-step guide: A Parent’s Guide to Disimpaction.
  • Younger children and babies can also be treated with laxatives if your doctor thinks they are needed. Get more information about the symptoms of constipation in under 5s and giving laxatives to bottle and breast-fed babies.
  • Some children may need to take laxatives for a long time to keep their poo soft and regular. You might feel worried about this, but you needn’t be. Undertreating constipation does more harm to the bowel in the long term.

Watch this video to find out more about how to use macrogol laxatives as part of a disimpaction. This is a 30 minute video.

For more tips on spotting constipation symptoms, constipation relief and making sure it doesn’t come back, take a look at our factsheet: Advice for Children with Constipation.

This factsheet is also available in Polish. Porady Dla Dzieci Cierpiących Na Zaparcia.


How can I prevent my child from becoming constipated again?

Once your child's constipation has been dealt with, it's important to stop it coming back.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Make sure they have at least 6-8 water based drinks every day
  • Include fruit and vegetables in their diet
  • Encourage them to follow a regular toilet routine: sitting on the toilet or potty after every meal and using a footstool to support their feet
  • Give them plenty of opportunities to exercise and move around
  • Don’t stop giving laxatives too early

NHS England videos about constipation in children

Watch a series of five short videos recorded by ERIC Nurse, Brenda Cheer for NHS England. They give an overview of constipation in children, the symptoms, treatment, using macrogol laxatives and keeping bowels healthy.

The remaining videos can be found in the videos tab of the resource box below this first introduction to constipation video.


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If is it not treated, constipation in children can become ‘chronic.’ The longer a child is constipated, the harder it is to sort out. The muscles of their bowel and rectum get stretched to hold more poo for longer than they should normally. This makes it more likely the poo will hurt your child when it finally comes out.
It may also mean they start to pass ‘over flow soiling’. Poo waiting to be released also interrupts the body’s usual way of sending our brain a signal to tell us we need to do a poo.

More information

Soiling, or encopresis, is not caused by laziness or naughtiness. We explain why it happens and how to stop it .

Children with autism or a learning disability are more likely to have tummy problems and become constipated. Find out why and get tips to help.

Find out why poo withholding happens and how to help your child overcome this stressful cycle of behaviour.

One of our experts explains how your GP should check your child for constipation. Only feeling their tummy is not enough!

Find out what kind of poo to expect from your baby and how to keep your child's bowel working properly.

Children only wanting to poo in a nappy is very common especially around the potty training stage. Get help with supporting your child to break this habit. 

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