Precipitants of constipation during early childhood

J Am Board Fam Pract. 2003 May-Jun;16(3):213-8. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.16.3.213.


Background: Childhood constipation is a common problem, accounting for 3% of visits to pediatric clinics and 30% of visits to pediatric gastroenterologists. Estimates of the prevalence of childhood constipation vary from 0.3% to 28% with younger children being affected most often. We were unable to find any studies that specifically examine the causes of constipation in young children. Our objective of the study was to determine precipitants to constipation during early childhood.

Methods: Findings from 125 families visiting their primary care physician for the first time with a child aged between 2 and 7 years with the complaint of constipation were compared with findings from 95 children between 2 and 7 years without any history of constipation. Parents answered questions concerning family history, toilet training, and bowel habits. Parents of constipated children were asked to describe events that occurred during the 3 months before the onset of constipation and whether these events contributed to the child's constipation.

Results: The age and sex of children who did and did not suffer from constipation were comparable (P > .3). When compared with control children, constipated children were no more likely to have a parent (30% vs 40%, P = .14) or sibling (17% vs 14%, P = .54) with a history of constipation. Constipated children did not begin toilet training earlier than did control children (28 +/- 7 vs 27 +/- 6 months, P = .30). When compared with parents of control children, parents of constipated children reported more difficulties with toilet training (P < .001). Parents of constipated children indicated their children had more difficult and more painful defecation experiences than did parents of control children (P < .001), and constipated children were more likely to express worry about future painful defecation than were control children (P < .001). Parents of constipated children described a number of events that occurred before the onset of constipation; however, they did not consider many of the events important contributors to the constipation. Painful defecation was the event most often reported as causing the constipation.

Conclusion: Painful defecation is the primary precipitant of constipation during early childhood. Parents should be counseled to be attentive to such experiences and taught to intervene quickly to lessen the risk that their child will develop persistent constipation or fecal soiling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Constipation / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / etiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Toilet Training