Three causes of kids’ constipation and what you can do

Constipation is one of the top reasons children come to Norton Children’s Emergency Departments

Stomachaches seem to be a fact of life for younger children. But there is often a common cause: constipation. It’s one of the top reasons children go to Norton Children’s Emergency Departments at Norton Children’s Hospital, Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital or Norton Children’s Medical Center.

What causes constipation in children?


“During potty training, you’ll see a lot of children withholding,” said John T. Stutts, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist at Norton Children’s Hospital and University of Louisville Physicians. “They may feel uncomfortable with the idea of sitting on the toilet, so they withhold.”

“They may not want to stop playing to use the toilet, so they hold it. The result is larger stools that hurt to pass. They don’t want it to hurt again, so they hold it in more, and you start a cycle.”

But school-age children can have problems too.

“There are a lot of children who want the home court advantage, so to speak,” Dr. Stutts said. “They hold it all day long, which can actually squelch the impulse to find a toilet. The colon stretches and holds more stool, so the child goes more days between movements.

“Schools that don’t let kids go to the bathroom are not helping the problem,” he said. “If they need to go, they need to go!”

To keep tabs on this situation, you’ll need to closely monitor your child’s habits. For younger children, standing with them and offering encouragement is key. For older children, simply making sure they’re going is key. If they’re not, you’ll need to look at the cause. If it’s simply because they don’t want to go, you may need to come up with a solution, such as trying to go at home every morning or evening. Talk to your child’s teacher if the school has a limited bathroom visit policy.


Constipation is not just about “holding it.” The modern diet is also partially to blame. Packaged, processed and restaurant foods tend to be higher in fat. The higher the fat, the slower the movement through the colon and the increased risk of constipation.

Diets also are traditionally low in fiber. Add the two together and it’s a recipe for tummy trouble. Increasing fiber is a good idea and easier than you think.

“Children eat a lot of cheese, which is high fat and constipating,” Dr. Stutts said. “We encourage parents to never use cheese as a snack and don’t add to sandwiches if constipation is a problem.”

Norton Children’s Medical Group

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Lack of exercise

Dr. Stutts says lack of exercise also can be partially to blame as children spend more time sitting and less time running around outside.

There are some other less common causes of constipation. These include child abuse, where a child is afraid to have a movement, or may still need help wiping and doesn’t want to ask an abuser. In very rare cases, certain diseases or syndromes can be the cause of constipation.

Learn other ways you can avoid falling into the tummy trouble trap, especially around the holidays.

If you suspect your child is constipated, talk to your pediatrician right away. There are simple treatments you can do at home.

If your child has a fever, severe abdominal pain on the right side and refuses to eat or drink, you may be dealing with something more severe, such as appendicitis. In this case, head to a Norton Children’s Emergency Department.