It’s not unusual for most of us—kids included—to have a hard time going to the bathroom occasionally. While many kids have bowel movements once or twice a day, others only go every few days, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Every child has a different pattern of what’s “normal” for him or her, but what if your kid can’t go on a regular basis? “Constipation can mean different things,” says Iona Monteiro, MD, professor and vice-chair of the department of pediatrics and director of the division of pediatric gastroenterology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It can be when a child has difficulty going for many days, or if a child has large, hard stools or even if he or she is going every day, but the stool is pellet-like or painful.”
Here’s what to do to help your child feel better:
BOOST THE FIBER AND WATER
Most of the time, constipation is related to inadequate amounts of fiber, says Monteiro. To get on track, make sure she has at least five servings of fruits and veggies per day, plus other high fiber foods, such as beans, nuts and whole grain cereals. Always choose whole foods, like fresh berries, not processed ones, like fruit leather.
Also pay attention to what specific foods do to your kid’s GI tract. Eating apples and bananas helps some kids go, while others get more constipated, says Monteiro. Ask your pediatrician about fiber gummies, too. Encourage her to drink three to four glasses of water per day, which helps move things along.
TALK THROUGH YOUR KID’S HABITS
Constipation may also be due to stress, which upsets gut function. A change in your household, such as starting a new grade or even a vacation, can cause a change in bowel habits. Talking about these new situations can help, says Monteiro. Some kids get constipated when they hold it because they don’t want to take a break from play and miss something, or they’re too embarrassed to use the school toilet. But the longer stool stays inside the lower intestinal tract, the more difficult it becomes to pass. If your child holds off on going, it can create a vicious cycle of constipation, says the AAP.
If your kid regularly struggles to go, have him or her sit on the toilet for five or ten minutes after breakfast—or if that’s not possible during the morning rush, try after dinner. Having food in the stomach encourages the intestines to move, so after meals is an ideal time to create a routine.
Don’t pressure your child: Just reinforce that bathroom breaks are an essential part of the day. “Teach your kids that it’s like making time for any other healthy habit, such as brushing your teeth,” says Monteiro.
WHEN TO CALL YOUR PEDIATRICIAN
If your kid has constipation once in a while, it’s no big deal. If it’s recurring or lasting more than a few days, or your child has a stomachache, accidents or bloody stool, call your pediatrician.