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Why Kids Hold Their Stool

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Poop and stool habits account for numerous discussions among parents, especially for those with newborn children or parents who are in the throes of potty training.  It’s true, no topic is off limits when it comes to raising healthy, resilient kids!

A problem that is more common than many know (or not willing to admit to) affects children  who do not want to poop, in other words, stool holding. Stool holding is called encopresis and is often seen in children with a history of chronic constipation or who have had stool avoidance issues.

Chronic constipation and encopresis may be related to a child having had pain with going to the bathroom. The normal response to the need to poop is to go the bathroom.  Seems very simple right?  While everyone may occasionally have a difficult or painful bowel movement, some children who have pain with pooping recall that it hurt “so, why would I continue to poop and have it hurt?”  In this case when a child feels the urge to poop they also feel they need to hold the poop in.

The urge to poop is due to the fact that stool has entered and stretched the rectal vault, which in turn sends impulses to the brain that “I need to poop.” If this feeling is repressed (by a child who doesn’t want to poop), the pressure may lessen for awhile but stool continues to fill the rectum, which gets more stretch and even further distended with stool.

As this scenario occurs multiple times a day, the stool becomes a larger mass filling the distended rectum, which can no longer be totally “held in”.  When the child inadvertently relaxes the rectal sphincter, the softer fecal material will escape from the rectum and causes an “accident” and soiling of a child’s underwear.

Many times a child is totally unaware that soiling has even occurred, but this is only “the tip of the iceberg” as there is still a huge amount of stool that is being held in the rectum. This held-in stool is usually hard, and dry and painful to pass.

The treatment of encopresis is multidisciplinary, with a combination of medicinal intervention, dietary changes and behavior modification. This must involve both parents and child and it may take as long as 4 – 12 months to adequately treat and resolve the issue.

Explaining the mechanics of stooling to both parent and child is important. It is also important that both parent and child understand that encopresis is NOT a behavioral problem nor is it “all in a child’s mind”. It occurs because the colon is not working as it should. Unfortunately, there is not a “quick fix” for encopresis and patience is important.

More on treating encopresis on Monday.

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