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What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is constipation?

Constipation is the term given to difficulty in passing stools. It can occur in babies, children and adults. It's more common in formula fed babies than in breastfed infants, and is also common in pregnancy.

You'll know your baby is constipated if she suddenly passes less poos than normal or if she goes more than three days without having a poo.

It's a more obvious problem in children who are out of nappies, as you'll notice your child straining on the potty or loo, or being reluctant to even try.

Pregnancy constipation is caused by the pregnancy hormone progesterone, which has a general effect of relaxing muscles. Because the bowel is made of muscle, this hormone can slow down the digestive process. It affects more than a third of expectant mums and, if persistent, can lead to haemorrhoids (piles).

What are the symptoms of Constipation?

Symptoms include the inability to pass a stool for a prolonged period, or passing hard, pellety stools. If your baby is constipated, her tummy may feel hard and she may be passing foul-smelling wind.

In adult constipation, you may feel as if you haven't completely emptied your bowel. You may also feel abdominal pain or discomfort.

What are the treatments and remedies of Constipation?

Home treatment is the first course of action to take. If your unweaned baby is formula-fed and constipated, offer her drinks of cooled, boiled water, and encourage her to drink often. You could also try cycling her legs while she's lying on her back and gently massaging her tummy.

If your baby has already moved on to solid foods, offer her more fruit and veg purées and drinks of diluted fruit juice and water.

Don't be tempted to dilute formula milk: you must always follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter. You could discuss with your GP or health visitor moving her on to a different brand, though, but don't do it unless you've been advised to. 

If home treatment doesn't help, your GP may prescribe a mild laxative for your baby. If your baby is breastfed, it is much less likely that they will become constipated, so just offer them the breast on demand. They will not need any other drinks unless your health professional advises you otherwise.

In constipated adults the best way of trying to combat the problem is to step up the amount of fibre you eat daily. Choose wholegrain and wholewheat bread, pasta and cereals; fibrous veg such as asparagus; broccoli; cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, and greens; fibrous fruit such as plums, peaches, nectarines, apples and pears, and bran. 

Drink plenty of water as this helps to ease constipation. Taking some light exercise, such as walking or swimming, can also help get things moving.

If self-help methods don't bring you relief from constipation, speak to your pharmacist. Many medicines are safe to take in pregnancy, but don't buy an over-the-counter remedy without checking with your pharmacist first.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net