The Surprising Thing That Can Help Kids With Constipation: Physical Therapy

New research finds that specific exercises can help kids with functional constipation.

Constipated child sitting on a potty
Photo: Shutterstock

Truth: a constipated child is an unhappy child (and an unhappy child makes for very unhappy parents!). If your little one has trouble going poop, maybe you've tried everything to help him, including laxatives, diet changes, and plenty of pep talks. But now a new study in the journal Gastroenterology finds kids with constipation may benefit from something you probably haven't tried: exercise.

It makes sense. Because as Reuters reports, kids with weak pelvic muscles may struggle to effectively eliminate waste. They may also suffer from poor posture, which doesn't help when you're trying to go to the bathroom. Ergo, physical therapy.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers looked at 53 kids between the ages of 5 and 16 and treated their constipation with toilet training, education, and laxatives. Meanwhile, 27 of those children also received physical therapy. After six months, 92 percent of the kids who got physical therapy no longer had functional constipation (which is when the problem is caused by psychological or neurological issues), versus 63 percent of kids from the control group.

So it seems pooping is all about muscle control! Or, as lead study author Marieke van Engelenburg explained more eloquently, "Effective, voluntary and involuntary, contraction and relaxation must be present when passing urine or feces on the toilet, to avoid dysfunctional voiding or constipation."

The takeaway: If your child consistently struggles with constipation, and nothing else seems to be helping, pelvic floor physical therapy may be something worth checking out.

"​Any kind of physical activity helps the colon move things along, so it's important to find activities your child enjoys," says Dr. Steve Hodges, a professor of pediatric urology at Wake Forest University and the author of It's No Accident: Breakthrough Solutions To Your Child's Wetting, Constipation, Utis, And Other Potty Problems. He shared some exercises from his book with and explained that kids can do them at home (daily, ideally) to help relieve the symptoms of constipation.

1. Frog Squat. "This exercise mimics the squatting posture that's so helpful for using the toilet, stretching the pelvic muscles to prepare for pooping and peeing. You will ask your child to squat down to the ground with her feet and knees spread wide, and heels and hands on the ground. Have your child look up, as if she is a frog looking for flies. Now, have her take deep breaths and be patient as she waits for the flies to come." This position should be held for 10 to 15 seconds, five times.

2. Invisible Chair. "This exercise strengthens the lower back muscles and helps train the child to keep his spine straight as he leans forward on the toilet. This exercise also stretches the potty muscles, which get tight from holding pee and poop and from all the time kids spend slumped over while playing video games." Instruct your kiddo to pretend she's going to sit on a low chair, with her feet shoulder-width apart, weight in her heels, and her arms reaching overhead. Think chair pose from yoga, moms! The goal is to have your child do ten to fifteen repetitions, holding for five seconds each time, twice a day.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.

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