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General Medical Questions
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Question : My toddler has frequent constipation problems. I have been giving him milk of magnesia about once a week, according to the directions on the bottle. Is there any risk involved in giving him this over-the-counter medicine?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a senior lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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August 12, 2013
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How often your child has a bowel movement can vary. But most children have one every day. Stool is normally passed without much effort or pain at regular intervals. Constipation happens when bowel movements happen less often than expected or when the stools are hard and difficult or painful to pass.

Constipation is a common problem, particularly for children between the ages of two to five. This is when toilet training and developmental changes are happening. Many toddlers eat little fiber and lots of constipating foods such as dairy products, rice and bananas. And they do not drink enough fluids. All these factors can cause constipation.

Toddlers also often wait too long to go to the bathroom. They’re either trying to be independent, resisting toilet training or just too busy playing. When a child holds back (withholds) stool, it becomes hard and dry. This may cause pain with the next bowel movement. So the child begins a cycle of withholding stool.

To help prevent constipation from happening again and again:

  • Give your son more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Offer four to six glasses of water each day. This helps prevent the stool from getting too dry and hard.
  • Make sure he gets regular exercise.
  • If your son is toilet-trained, help him to establish regular bowel movements by sitting on the toilet for 10 minutes at the same time each day, preferably after meals. If he is not yet toilet-trained, wait on this process until after his constipation has gotten better.

You can also treat constipation with stool softeners and laxatives (for example, milk of magnesia). These pull in and keep water in the bowel. This helps to stimulate bowel movements. These types of medicine are available without a prescription and have minimal side effects. Still, never give them to a child without first speaking with your doctor.

Bottom line: Medicine alone will usually not have a long-lasting effect. So, in most cases, a toddler’s diet and toilet habits need to be looked at closely.

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