The Signs, Causes, and Impact of Constipation in Kids

The low-down for little ones
smiling baby sitting on potty with toilet paper rolls
© Can Stock Photo / oksun70

As parents, we want nothing more than to see our children thrive and grow. Unfortunately, poor lifestyle habits are increasingly interfering with healthy diet and activity levels, negatively impacting our children’s normal bodily processes and functions. This means that when nature calls, your child may not be able to answer—in other words, constipation may be a consequence. And while constipation is now so common in kids that it’s virtually considered “normal,” it could be interfering with your child’s ability to live their best life.

As I work with more and more families struggling to establish stable moods, energy, and health in their kids, I have found constipation to be one of a trifecta of issues that can interfere with good health. Sleeping, eating, and pooping issues are so important to resolve that I consider them to be The Foundational Trifecta for Resilient Health (you can find more in my book, Raising Resilience). If these are problems for your child, solving them is key, not just so they’ll feel better physically, but they’ll also be able to focus and learn better, have fewer tantrums, be less anxious, get sick less often, and have more stable energy and emotions.

The #2 problems

Stool quality

Hard, pebbly stool that is difficult to pass is clearly recognizable as constipation. But soft, squiggly stool can also be constipation; this happens when harder stool accumulates and clogs the lower bowel, allowing only soft bits to make it through.

Stool frequency

Your child should be pooping at least once a day; 2-3 times is even better. Even if their poop is well-formed, if they are pooping less than daily, try the tips in this article to get things moving even better.

Other constipation conditions

Reflux and heartburn can develop when stool becomes compacted in the lower digestive tract and exerts upward pressure on the stomach and cardiac sphincter, whose job it is to keep stomach acids from pushing up into the esophagus.

Frequent bedwetting, especially in children over the age of five, can happen when the full intestine pushes on the bladder.

Extreme mood and energy fluctuations can often be the result of poor gut functioning as our gut directly affects our brains.

Why can’t my kid “go”?

To relieve any symptom, we need to figure out its cause, as many common factors can contribute to constipation. 

Sedentary lifestyle and lack of regular exercise leads to low tone in the bowel muscles and poor blood flow to the intestine.

Poor diet that is insufficient in fibre and high in processed foods can contribute to digestive issues and impact bowel health.

Poor digestion and an imbalanced microbiome can result in slow, inefficient digestion and ensuing constipation. This includes sub-optimal bile production in the liver and low stomach acid, which can be a significant factor for children who were on stomach acid suppressors or antibiotics as babies

Food intolerances could be causing irritation and inflammation in the gut wall and slowing down digestion. Any food can potentially cause this kind of irritation so it’s tricky to tease out, but I have found cow’s dairy to be the most common culprit, followed closely by gluten and sugar.

Dehydration is a prevalent condition, making it critical to ensure your child drinks enough water to keep the bowels flowing and the digestive lining healthy.

Stress stimulates hormones, like adrenaline, that keep our kids in a fight-or-flight state and inhibits hormones, like acetylcholine, that allow them to rest, digest, and relax. Anxiety can lead to fear, increased stress hormones, and withholding.

Medication commonly has a constipating side effect.

Why bowel movement matters

Severe and untreated constipation can lead to more serious medical situations, but even mild constipation can be a significant strain on your child’s wellness and resilience, negatively impacting their health, behaviour, and mood.

Inability to clear waste

The stool is a primary pathway through which the body flushes waste, and when that exit route is blocked, waste literally backs up and ferments, generating even more waste (endogenous waste). This can pass through the gut lining, increasing the workload of the body, particularly the liver, and can interfere with hormonal, neurologic, and immune function as well as exacerbate skin conditions.

Inflammation of intestinal lining

Stagnant stool can irritate and inflame the intestinal lining. Inflammation has now been linked to myriad health conditions ranging from ADHD to depression to cardiovascular disease, and research has shown that as we relieve inflammation in the gut, we also relieve inflammation elsewhere in the body, including the brain. This inflammation and irritation from constipation can also increase the permeability of the gut wall which has been found to contribute to the development of allergies and autoimmune disease.

Impact of discomfort 

Constipation causes pain and discomfort that many children cannot articulate. This discomfort can be expressed as mood and behaviour flare-ups, can interfere with quality of sleep and concentration, and can lead to reduced appetite and nutrient intake.

As we learn more about the intricacies of the digestive system, we discover that what goes on there has an impact on the body as a whole. Not only is the digestive tract the vehicle of all our nourishment (without it we would not be able to extract nutrients from food to feed our cells), but it is also home to the bulk of our microbes—our carefully orchestrated regulation system that impacts everything from metabolism to emotions.

If your child is constipated and does not have at least one well-formed bowel movement every day, their body is under stress. Chemicals and hormones are allowed to recirculate, irritation increases, and nutrient absorption can decrease. Keeping the digestive system running smoothly is foundational to good health and resilience. Relieving constipation can improve mood, focus, sleep, learning, and overall health and will free up energy. There are many natural solutions for mild constipation you can try at home. If home methods fail to resolve the issue, or if the condition is more serious and causing pain, see a practitioner to investigate undiagnosed food sensitivities, which might be slowing down digestive function.