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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Barbara Howard, MD

No more encopresis!

Wishful thinking. “Repeated involuntary passage of stool in the underwear after the acquisition of toileting skills (typically > 4 years of age) in the absence of overt neuromuscular anorectal dysfunction,” formerly called encopresis, certainly still exists, renamed functional fecal incontinence (FFI). You have surely cared for many children with FFI over the years, mostly the 80% retentive (constipated) type but newer information may make your management more successful!

The first step in managing FFI is detecting it. This may seem easy as we get a whiff of its presence, even if the child and parents are unaware because of habituation to the odor. Children lose sensation from rectal dilation by the stool mass and become unaware of leakage. But they also are ashamed of and deny “accidents,” hide soiled underwear, and keep distance from parents and peers. Our physical exam may reveal an abdominal mass or perianal stool. While there, check the anal wink, anus placement, lower spine integrity, and ankle reflexes for rare neurological causes. A rectal exam is not required if the story fits but, if not, may show a dilated rectal vault and hard mass. Blood work, x-ray, ultrasound, barium enemas, or manometry are rarely indicated.

Instead of counting on expressed concern, we should routinely ask children about large, painful, or infrequent poops. There are even Rome IV criteria for constipation – at least two of the following without organic pathology and with duration of at least 1 month: less than 2 defecations/week, a history of hard or painful stools, retentive posturing or excessive stool retention, large stools blocking the toilet, large rectal fecal mass, or at least 1 episode of incontinence/week. Our history should request this but parents are often unaware of their child’s patterns except for that blocked toilet!

Other actionable history includes struggles over toilet training, early anal fissure or painful stools, a history of “straining”, crying, or crossing legs (attempts to withhold), short stature and/or diarrhea (possible celiac disease), abdominal pain, poor appetite, or a diet high in milk products or low in fiber. Family history may suggest rare organic causes such as hypothyroidism, Hirschsprung disease, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2, or celiac disease, but also constipation (in 55%). After the newborn period (imperforate anus or meconium ileus), 95% of constipation is functional.

While constipation has a worldwide prevalence of 9.5%, low exercise and low-fiber diet are particularly American. Low total food intake as a cause is uncommon in the United States but another reason to screen for food insecurity.

Patterns of behavior can predispose to constipation and FFI. For the child, oppositionality, social anxiety, depression, or eating disorders may interfere with sufficient stool frequency and relaxation needed to fully evacuate at home, daycare, or school. Query every child with ADHD about stool patterns as inattention to urge plus impatience with completing defection (and ODD) are common disorders leading to FFI. Parents who are overly demanding, intrusive, rushing, irritable, anxious, or obsessive may also make routine toileting stressful. When caregivers are neglectful, fail to maintain routines for eating, or ignore dirty diapers, toilet training is more likely to fail and constipation ensue.

Clean out and maintenance using medication are needed for FFI, but child and family behavior change are also critical; the combination has proven more successful. Both the child and parents need clear a explanation of how constipation develops from withholding, regardless of the reason (pain, anxiety, conflict, diet), leading to larger stools more difficult to pass as water is absorbed in the colon. The large mass stretches the bowel so that sensation and strength for motility is impaired and softer stool leaks by and out the rectum unbeknownst to the child. I find drawing “the rock of poop” in a dilated thin walled colon with nerves sparse and “liquid stool sneaking by” compared to a “muscular” colon with soft poop animates and objectifies this explanation. Making it clear that leaking is involuntary is key to having the parent and child directly forgive each other for prior anger, blaming, sneaking, or punishment. While the school-aged child needs to be in charge of toileting, resolving the conflict is essential.

The critical next step is cleaning out “the rocks,” which should only rarely be omitted. Polyethylene glycol (PEG, for example, Miralax) has the best evidence, tastes better (without electrolytes), and dosing 1-1.5 g/kg per day premixed in 10 mL/kg fluid of the child’s choice kept cold and swallowed within 30 minutes daily for 3-6 days until feces have no more chunks. This process disimpacts 95% of the time. Reassure parents of the long-term safety despite the warning on the label that it is intended for adult users. Lactulose or sorbitol (1 mL/kg, once or twice daily), magnesium hydroxide, bisacodyl, or senna are long second choices. Only if these fail should mineral oil 15-30 mL per year of age, up to 240 mL per day be used and then not in infants or if there is aspiration risk. While enemas (mineral oil, sodium phosphate, or saline) and p.o. PEG are equally effective, enemas are very intrusive and unnecessary. There is insufficient evidence for probiotics, prebiotics, or synbiotics.

It is crucial to be honest with the child and parents that clean out can be uncomfortable as cramping or leaking may occur. Thus, starting PEG after school on Friday and being prepared to stay home Monday (if rocks are still emerging) may be needed to avoid accidents.

After clean out, maintenance using daily PEG 0.4-0.8 g/kg per day (best) or lactulose needs to be continued for 2-6 or even 12 months to prevent relapse as the bowel recovers. Bowels need to produce 1-2 soft stools per day for 1 month before considering weaning off PEG. High-fiber (age of child plus 5-10 g/day) diet perpetually is more acceptable if we suggest Frosted Mini-Wheats, Fig Newtons, cookies or muffins baked with wheat bran, popcorn, or fruits with “p” in the name (for example, prunes, pears, apricots), Raisin Bran, or methylcellulose in juice or Popsicles, wafers (with jelly or frosting), or tablets. Infant diet can include brown sugar, or prune/apple/pear juice (Karo is no longer reliably osmotic). Diet needs to include 32-64 ounces of nonmilk fluids, although this will not serve as treatment alone. Limit cow milk to 16 oz. or consider eliminating it entirely if other treatments fail as cow milk is constipating.

Maintenance also requires coaching the child to commence “exercises” to “strengthen the bowel.” These consist of sitting with feet supported to elevate at the hip for 10 minutes by a timer after meals 2-3 times per day and pushing. Entertainment such as music, books, small toys, or a noncompetitive video game and/or rewards of cash, tokens, or treats may lighten the routine. These “exercises” need to be continued indefinitely and monitored with a stool diary. Monthly check-ins are essential to adherence and success, especially in the first 3-4 months, to address any relapses.

While constipation has consequences besides FFI: physical (abdominal pain, anal fissure, rectal prolapse, enuresis, UTI, vesicoureteral reflux, and upper urinary tract dilatation, poor appetite, or poor growth), emotional problems (lability, depression, anxiety, aggression, and low self-esteem), social problems (peer humiliation, teasing, rejection, parent upset, anger, shaming, and punishment), and school absence, we can be supportive and effective coaches for this chronic condition.

Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS ( She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. E-mail her at


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