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Digestive Problems
February 2003

Q. I have a 3-year-old child who lately has been suffering from bouts of constipation followed by bouts of diarrhea. The constipation wakes him up at night with severe abdominal pain, and the only way he is able to go to the bathroom is with a laxative which the doctor told me to give him. This went on for a couple of weeks. The diarrhea comes usually a few days after having normal bowel movements and lasts about 2 or 3 days, after which he goes back to being constipated again. Could this be a sign of something serious or just unusual bowel habits?

A. Intermittent digestive problems are common at any age, but if the disturbance is ongoing, further evaluation may be needed. We might first consider what promotes normal bowel function. Contents of the diet are of obvious importance as fiber promotes soft stools. Fiber is common in fruits and vegetables in general plus grains such as wheat or oats found in breads and cereals. Adequate water intake is important and exercise also aids passage through the colon. Correcting any of these factors is the first measure. Use of stool softeners and laxatives is usually only recommended for short-term use. More serious ailments such as colitis can occur in children as well as adults. Your pediatrician can decide if more tests are needed.

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