Constipation can result from not consuming enough liquids or fiber, or from a parent's too vigorous potty-training techniques. It can also happen when a child puts off going to the bathroom, says John Thompson, M.D., director of pediatric gastroenterology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. She may feel that she's too busy playing to stop for a potty break. Or she may have had discomfort passing a stool and is trying to avoid having that happen again.
If the constipation becomes chronic, occurring frequently over a few months, it could lead to reduced bowel sensation -- a difficulty in sensing the need to go to the bathroom -- or encopresis, the inability to control bowel movements altogether.
The best way to prevent the problem in your child: Be sure that she gets plenty of juice, water, fresh fruits, vegetables, and cereal. And watch for signs that your toddler needs to have a bowel movement, says Dr. Thompson. Some kids push against a wall, wiggle in their seats, or sit on their heels when the urge to go strikes. Gently guide your child to the bathroom or, if she isn't fully trained, put her in a diaper, and reassure her that she'll feel better once she's finished.
When potty training, never force a child to sit on the potty; be patient as she masters the new challenge.
If constipation strikes, increase fluids or try giving your toddler one to two ounces of prune juice diluted in water. If she's in pain or strains hard while trying to go to the bathroom, call your doctor. "Laxatives and invasive measures, such as enemas, should only be used under the supervision of a physician," says Dr. Thompson.