As a parent, it can be heart-wrenching to hear these words: “Mommy, it hurts to poop.” The culprit is often constipation, and stool softeners can be an effective treatment for this condition.
However, parents should check for other symptoms – vomiting, fever, nausea, and others that may signal a more serious situation – before starting their kids on a stool softener regimen.
It is also important to check with your pediatrician before beginning any form of medical treatment.
Constipation is the condition in which people experience trouble having regular bowel movements. This can manifest as infrequent or painful bowel movements, often with dry, pellet-like stool (or none at all for several days).
Constipation is especially difficult for children to deal with because it is hard for them to articulate what the issue is that they are experiencing.
The first remedy that pediatricians recommend for constipation is to drink plenty of fluids. Pediatricians and dietitians also recommend dietary changes. Try incorporating foods high in fiber such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
If your child is still experiencing painful, irregular bowel movements after several days of implementing these changes, it may be time to try a stool softener. Fortunately, there are many over-the-counter stool softeners in the aisles of your neighborhood pharmacy.
Over-the-Counter Stool Softeners
As you can see in the chart above, the main ingredient in stool softeners is docusate sodium. It is known to be safe for children and is recommended by many pediatricians for the softening of stool.
Docusate sodium works by facilitating the mixture of water and dietary fat within the hard stool, making it softer. This type of stool softener doesn’t aggressively stimulate the bowel like a stimulant laxative.
Many laxatives that stimulate the bowel to move stool along contain an ingredient called senna glycoside. These remedies for constipation are most definitely not designed for children.
Ultimately, simple stool softeners are recommended rather than medications that stimulate the bowel (stimulant laxatives). The potent ingredients used in adult stool softeners are too strong for your child’s sensitive gut. This is why it’s vital that you only buy medications that state on the label that they are safe for children.
The natural alternatives listed typically have a longer turnaround time. The ingredients in the formula are more of a dietary supplement than an active medication. Most natural ingredients are extracted from fruits and vegetables, rich in fiber.
Some parents try the organic versions of stool softeners paired with dietary changes if their child is beginning to show signs of constipation. Especially since this route is a more natural and gradual remedy.
If your child hasn’t had a bowel movement in several days, stool softeners containing docusate sodium are ideal. I also recommend using your pediatrician as a resource.
Taking the Medication
Stool softeners are meant to treat individual bouts of constipation or painful bowel movements.
Therefore, children should not remain on a regimen of stool softeners for an extended time.
Avoid Stopping Too Soon
However, a common mistake that many parents make is to stop the treatment too early. For example, some may notice (and celebrate) one pain-free bowel movement and stop giving the medicine too soon.
This often leads to a recurrence of constipation, as the child’s body needs to continue processing the stool softener medication even after the first successful bowel movement.
According to some pediatricians, many kids can benefit from staying on the stool softener regimen for up to two weeks.
Follow Dosing Recommendations
Another mistake that many parents make in the treatment of constipation is giving too small of a dose of the stool softener. No parent wants to overwhelm their child’s little body with too much medication. Especially something that actively works within their organs.
However, parents should trust the dosage charts on the medication packaging. These recommendations are made under the guidance of medical professionals. Again, always check with your child’s doctor when you try a new medication. Especially when it is for a prolonged amount of time.
Combine Medication with Diet Changes
If the stool softener isn’t working as well as expected, make sure your little one is drinking plenty of fluids and eating a higher fiber diet. Try adding leafy green vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to your weekly menu cycle.
Some well known side effects of medications containing docusate sodium include upset stomach, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting. Additional side effects include changes in bowel movements, both in the consistency of the stool, and regularity of the movements.
These medicines also suggest going to see a doctor if any bleeding is present, or if no bowel movement occurs after using this medication for several days. These signs could be the symptom of a more severe condition that your doctor should evaluate.
The side effects from stool softeners are unusual, and many parents report relatively few side effects.
Use Stool Softeners as a Second Line Defense
Stool softeners are a valuable tool to have in your medicine cabinet, to help ease any issues your child is having with constipation or hard stool. Most stool softeners don’t need a doctor’s prescription and are easy to find at your local pharmacy.
As a good rule of thumb, try to increase the amount of water and foods high in fiber in your child’s diet. However, it is not uncommon for children to require a stool softener to help them get on track.