From ear infections to gastro bugs, the early years of raising a family can feel like a merry-go-round of nose wiping, medicine dispensing, sleepless nights and doctor’s visits. But what about those health issues that can stick around – asthma, eczema, severe allergies, silent reflux and sleep apnoea, to name just a few? Managing your child’s chronic health condition can be an exhausting, disheartening, even an isolating business, as my husband and I have learned as parents of two children who suffer from chronic constipation, among other health issues.
I am sharing the story of our family’s battle against long-term constipation here because I want to help other families – families like ours with children for whom constipation is the norm, causing anxiety, discomfort and sometimes even damage.
Constipation is not a glamorous subject, and certainly isn’t discussed widely in the community as, say, asthma or allergies are. Nor is it a subject I knew anything much about just over three years ago. But it is one that is never far from my thoughts these days as my husband and I do all that we can to keep our children performing one of the most basic human functions: eliminating the body’s waste.
Constipation in children is not uncommon. Usually it’s an acute problem, passing within a couple of weeks, resolved perhaps by increasing the child’s water intake, incorporating more fibre in their diet, perhaps identifying a source of food intolerance. Toilet training can throw up problems too – the word ‘withholding’ takes on a whole new meaning when you are in a stand-off with your wilful toddler who refuses to let go of a poo. Sometimes a laxative medication is needed for a while. But what happens when the condition remains, month after month, year after year?
Signs that our girls had slow bowels were present during their first year while the girls were exclusively breastfed. But the constipation properly set in with the introduction of solids. With every dropped breastfeed, each of our daughters pooed less, strained more, and tore, again and again. By twelve months each one had learned to fear passing stools; by fifteen months they were actively withholding, a diabolical behaviour with an already inefficient bowel. By eighteen months, both had become entirely dependent on an osmotic laxative. Now at the ages of 21 months and three and a half years, even with the stool-softening medication, both children can still become impacted, requiring clear-outs. The slightest reduction in their base dose of medication, we have found, and their systems can halt.
Chronic constipation affects our children’s appetite, behaviour and sleep. Every bowel movement is a precious thing: it promises a better effort at the next meal; less clingy, withdrawn or volatile behaviour; a blessed decent night’s sleep. As the poo backs up within them, it brings not only discomfort, but also skin flare-ups and runny noses. We’re frequent visitors at our doctor’s, the dietician’s, the gastroenterologist’s, and most recently at the allergist’s, and although we have found excellent medical support, no one has a solution to our daughters’ problem. We’ve been told the girls may need to manage the condition all their lives.
Chronic constipation can be a difficult issue for others to understand. The children appear healthy, and largely they are, yet they still have a significant health problem that needs close attention. It is time consuming, frustrating and relentless. I worry I have become a terrible, absent friend. Often my sole purpose is to get us all through the day as best I can.
Over the years we have received so many suggestions from non-professionals on how to resolve our children’s constipation. The bottom line is, if the answer was as simple as pear or prune juice, I would not be writing this. Natural remedies may work wonders for most children experiencing acute constipation, and adults too; however, at least right now, if our two children do not take medication, quite simply they will end up in hospital.
Six months ago I was a founding member of an online support group for parents of children suffering from long-term constipation, sparked by a thread within Inner West Mums. Within months the group had members from across the world, now totalling more than 50. Some members are relatively new to the fight against constipation; others have spent years trying to resolve their children’s issues. Although my children’s issues pale in comparison with those of many within the group, I can relate entirely to the feelings of constant stress and disappointment. And I know that by sharing my concern, maybe a few insights from my experience, I can help those parents, just as they help me. The group has become a wonderful source of information, support and friendship.
In writing openly about my family’s experience here, I hope to raise awareness of this little-discussed, difficult condition. If you have concerns about your child’s gut health, I urge you to speak to your GP or paediatrician. If they are not taking your concerns seriously, find another one who can support you and your child well. Although it seems there are unfortunately no quick fixes for our daughters’ condition, having access to a proactive GP and the specialised knowledge of a paediatric gastroenterologist has made a world of difference for our family. For any parents with children who suffer from chronic constipation wishing to join the group mentioned above, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.
More from Ginny Grant:
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Triumph or Trauma
When is enough, enough?
Friends, Near or Far
My ( Child’s) Kitchen Rules