If a child over 4 years of age has been toilet trained, and still passes stool and soils clothes, it is called encopresis. The child may or may not be doing this on purpose.
The child may have constipation. The stool is hard, dry, and stuck in the colon (called fecal impaction). The child then passes only wet or almost liquid stool that flows around the hard stool. It may leak out during the day or night.
Other causes may include:
- Not toilet training the child
- Starting toilet training when the child was too young
- Emotional problems, such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder
Whatever the cause, the child may feel shame, guilt, or low self-esteem, and may hide signs of encopresis.
Factors that may increase the risk of encopresis:
- Chronic constipation
- Low socioeconomic status
The problem is much more common in boys than in girls.
Symptoms can include any of the following:
- Being unable to hold stool before getting to a toilet (bowel incontinence)
- Passing stool in inappropriate places (as in the child's clothes)
- Keeping bowel movements a secret
- Having constipation and hard stools
- Passing a very large stool sometimes that almost blocks the toilet
Exams and Tests
The health care provider may feel the stool stuck in the child’s rectum (fecal impaction). An x-ray of the child's belly may show impacted stool in the colon.
The goal of treatment is to:
- Prevent constipation
- Keep good bowel habits
It is best for parents to support, rather than criticize or discourage the child.
Treatments may include any of the following:
- Giving the child laxatives or enemas to remove dry, hard stool.
- Giving the child stool softeners.
- Having the child eat a diet high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and drink plenty of fluids to keep the stools soft and comfortable.
- Taking flavored mineral oil for a short period of time. This is only a short-term treatment because mineral oil interferes with the absorption of calcium and vitamin D.
- Seeing a pediatric gastroenterologist when these treatments aren't enough. The doctor may use biofeedback, or teach the parents and child how to manage encopresis.
- Seeing a psychotherapist to help the child deal with associated shame, guilt, or loss of self-esteem.
For encopresis without constipation, the child may need a psychiatric evaluation to find the cause.
Most children respond well to treatment.
If not treated, the child may have low self-esteem and problems making and keeping friends. Other complications may include:
- Chronic constipation
- Urinary Incontinence
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your provider if a child is over 4 years old and has encopresis.
Encopresis can be prevented by:
- Toilet training your child at the right age and in a positive way.
- Talking to your provider about things you can do to help your child if your child shows signs of constipation, such as dry, hard, or infrequent stools.
Soiling; Incontinence - stool; Constipation - encopresis; Impaction - encopresis
Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF. Motility diorders and hirschsprung disease. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 332.
Kuizenga-Wessel S, Benninga MA. Funcational constipation and incontinence. In: Wyllie R, Hyams JS, Kay M, eds. Pediatric Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 11.
Review Date 8/31/2016
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.