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Constipation Module


AuthorRebecca Paxton
Duration30-60 mins
Equipment requiredNone
  • Basics (10 mins)
  • Main session: (2 x 15 minute) case discussions covering the key points and evidence
  • Advanced session: (2 x 20 minutes) case discussions covering grey areas, diagnostic dilemmas; advanced management and escalation
  • Quiz (10 mins)
  • Infographic sharing (5 mins): 5 take home learning points

We also recommend printing/sharing a copy of your local guideline.

DFTB constipation week:  Constipation week

NICE guidance: 1 Guidance | Constipation in children and young people: diagnosis and management | Guidance

BMJ Childhood constipation Clinical Review: Childhood constipation

Constipation in Children: Dates for Your Diary – Constipation in Children 

Billy is an otherwise well 4 year old boy who presents to A&E with a 4 week history of abdominal pain. His pain comes and goes, and seems to be worse after eating. Today he has been doubling over with pain and crying inconsolably.

He has had no fevers or vomiting. He is drinking well but parents think he is a bit off his food. His last poo was 3 days ago, and parents think it was normal but aren’t sure.

What else would you like to know?

What would you look for on examination?
How would you treat Billy?

When should he be seen again?

What is your next step if he doesn’t respond to your treatment?

Red flags – make sure learners have thought to exclude red flags in their history and examination. These include:

  • History of delay more than 48hours in passing meconium
  • Ribbon stools
  • Faltering growth
  • Abdominal distension and vomiting
  • Abnormal anatomical appearance of the anus
  • Severe abdominal distension
  • Abnormal motor development
  • Abnormal gluteal muscles or sacrum
  • Spine or limb deformity (including talipes)
  • Abnormal power, tone or reflexes
  • Safeguarding concerns
  • Ensure external examination of anus for haemorrhoids/fissures that may need treatment 
  • Treatment – assess Billy for signs of impaction and start disimpaction regime if indicated. Discuss non pharmacological treatments.
  • Counselling – prepare parents for duration of treatment, possible side effects and importance of adherence
  • Follow up – prompt and regular follow up, tailored to the families needs
  • Treatment failure – discuss reasons for treatment failure, methods to tackle common problems
  • Red flags
  • Not responding to treatment after 3 months (thyroid, coeliac, allergy) 
  • Failure to thrive
  • Safeguarding concerns

Jakob is a  9 day old baby boy who is brought to the emergency department with vomiting. He is mum’s 3rd baby. Mum is worried that he is vomiting everything he drinks, and is sleepier than she would expect. He seems distressed when awake. He is having 3-4 light wet nappies per day but has only passed a few small stools in his short life.

What else would you like to know? 

What would you look for on physical exam?

Would you order any investigations?

What is your initial management?

  • Red flags on history – delayed passage of meconium and bilious vomiting
  • Examination- look for abdominal distention, careful examination of external genitalia and anus. Document weight and weight loss.
  • Discussion of PR examination – should only be performed by experienced practitioner. May result in forceful expulsion of gas/stool (highly suggestive of Hirschsprung’s). 
  • Investigations – order in consultation with surgical team. Consider abdominal XR to assess for obstruction but keep in mind the surgical team will likely perform contrast study. Rectal biopsy (under surgeons) for definitive diagnosis. 
  • Initial management – resuscitation. NG tube and IV fluids, correction of any electrolyte abnormalities. Look for signs of sepsis (enterocolitis).

Lily is an 8 year old girl with Trisomy 21. She had an AVSD repair as an infant, and is otherwise well and takes no medications. She has been referred to A&E by her GP with worsening constipation. She has been constipated on and off for most of her life, but this has usually been easily managed with movicol. This time around, she has been constipated for 3-4 months and is passing painful, hard stools approximately once per week. Her GP started her on movicol 3 months ago, which parents say she has been happily taking but it doesn’t seem to be working. 

What else would you like to know?

What investigations would you order?

What do you think might be going on?

How would you treat Lily?

T21 and constipation. Constipation is very common in Trisomy 21. Most often it is not due to an underlying disease, but a combination of low muscle tone, decreased mobility and/or a restricted diet. However, T21 is associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disease, including thyroid dysfunction, diabetes and coeliac disease – all of which might cause constipation.

Investigations can be done in an outpatient setting, in this scenario should be followed up by a community paediatrician. Screen for all of the above.

Laxative treatment is unlikely to be entirely effective until the underlying problem is corrected. However, depending on the severity of symptoms treatment escalation is appropriate. Lily doesn’t have any symptoms if impaction, but it may be worth escalating her movicol dose or considering the addition of a stimulant laxative whilst awaiting test results.

Advanced Case 2 (20 minutes)

Georgie is a 12 year old girl with severe autism. She is non verbal. She is otherwise well, but has had trouble with constipation in the past. Her parents attribute this to her being a “picky eater”. Georgie has had abdominal pain for the last 2 weeks, and has been passing small, pellet – like stools every 4-5 days. She has been having more “accidents”, and has been back in nappies for the last 7 days. She has been seen by the GP who has diagnosed constipation and prescribed movicol. She took this as prescribed for the first couple of days, but she is now refusing her medications. Over the past 4 or 5 days, Georgie has begun to refuse all food and will only drink sips of juice with a lot of encouragement. When parents try to give her medications or take her to the toilet, Georgie becomes very upset and aggressive. Her parents are very distressed and not sure what to do.

What are your management options for Georgie? 

Children on the autistic spectrum are more likely to have problems with constipation. Often this is due to a restricted diet, but may also be due to increased levels of anxiety around toileting.

  • Georgie requires disimpaction and this is not being achieved despite the best efforts of the family. There is no right approach to this scenario. Options include
    • Optimise setting and motivators for toileting
    • Change/optimise medications – try mixing movicol into juice, try changing to lactulose, add stimulant laxative
    • Admission for washout – nasogastric tube for washout +/- enema. Strongly consider sedation
    • General anaesthetic for manual disimpaction + washout
  • Support parents and empower them in decision making process
  • Involve multidisciplinary team – community supports will be important on discharge

Macrogol laxatives may cause “lazy bowel” if used for more than 2 months. True or false?

The correct answer is false.

There is some evidence of patients developing dependence on stimulant laxatives if used long term. However, macrogols are safe to use indefinitely without complication.

Which of the following is NOT supportive of a diagnosis of idiopathic constipation?

A: Loss of appetite

B: Ribbon like stools 

C: Urinary incontinence

D: Faecal incontinence

The correct answer is B.

Ribbon like stools suggest an anorectal malformation, and any history of this warrants further investigation. Loss of appetite, urinary and faecal incontinence can all be the result of constipation or faecal impaction. 

In a child with abdominal pain, the diagnosis of UTI makes constipation less likely. True or false?

The correct answer is false.

Constipation can lead to urinary retention and UTI, and as such the two can, and often do, co-exist.  A positive urine dip or culture doesn’t rule out constipation as a cause of abdominal pain. Don’t forget to think about constipation in the child with a history of recurrent UTI. 

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Constipation in children and young people. London: NICE, 2014. Available at 

The Royal Children’s Hospital. Clinical practice guideline on constipation. Melbourne: RCH, 2017. Available at

Zeevenhooven J, Koppen IJ, Benninga MA. The new Rome IV criteria for functional gastrointestinal disorders in infants and toddlers. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr 2017;20(1):1–13.

Sampaio C, Sousa AS, Fraga LGA, Veiga ML, Netto JMB, Barroso Jr U. Constipation and lower urinary tract dysfunction in children and adolescents: a population-based study. Frontiers in pediatrics 2016;4:101.

Youssef NN, et al. Dose response of PEG 3350 for the treatment of childhood fecal impaction. Journal of Pediatrics. 2002;141(3):410-4

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