Encopresis is when your child leaks stool into their underwear. It is also called stool soiling. It is most often because of long-term (chronic) constipation. Encopresis happens to children ages 4 and older who have already been toilet trained.
The Pediatric Surgery service at Mass General for Children is an international referral center for the complete spectrum of general and thoracic pediatric and neonatal surgical services.
What is encopresis?
Encopresis is when your child leaks stool into their underwear. It's also called stool soiling. It's most often because of long-term (chronic) constipation. Encopresis happens to children ages 4 and older who have already been toilet trained.
In most cases, stool soiling happens by accident. Encopresis can be very embarrassing for your child.
What causes encopresis?
In most cases, encopresis happens because a child has long-term (chronic) constipation.
When a child is constipated, they have fewer bowel movements than normal. Bowel movements can then become hard, dry, and difficult to pass. Your child may stay away from going to the bathroom because it hurts. Then stool becomes backed up (impacted) in the rectum and the large intestine (colon). The stool can’t move forward. The rectum and intestine become enlarged because of the hard, impacted stool.
Over time, liquid stool can start to leak around the hard, dry, impacted stool. This soils your child's clothing.
Other causes of encopresis include:
Colonic inertia, a condition where the colon doesn’t move stool along as it should
Nerve damage to the muscle at the end of the digestive tract (anal sphincter). This keeps it from closing correctly.
Fear of using the toilet
Rectal infections or tears
Other health problems may cause chronic constipation. These include diabetes, hypothyroidism, Hirschsprung disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Which children are at risk for encopresis?
Any child who has long-term (chronic) constipation may develop encopresis. Risk factors for constipation include:
Eating a high-fat, high-sugar, junk-food diet
Drinking mostly soft drinks and sugary drinks
Not drinking enough water and fruit juices
Lack of exercise
Not wanting to use public bathrooms
Feeling stressed with family, with friends, or at school
Being too busy playing to take time to use the bathroom
Having a change in bathroom routine. This includes starting a new school year, when a child has fewer bathroom breaks.
Encopresis affects boys more than girls. Experts don’t know why.
What are the symptoms of encopresis?
Each child’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:
Having loose, watery stools
Needing to have a bowel movement with little or no warning, called involuntary stooling. Your child may soil underwear if they can’t get to the bathroom in time.
Scratching or rubbing the anal area, because it’s irritated by watery stools
Withdrawing from friends, school, or family
Hiding soiled underwear
Symptoms of encopresis may look like other health conditions. Always see your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is encopresis diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider will give your child an exam and take a health history. Imaging tests may also be done to check the intestine and rule out other health problems. These tests may include:
Abdominal X-ray. This test checks how much stool is in the large intestine.
Barium enema. This test checks the intestine for blockages or obstruction, narrow areas called strictures, and other problems. It uses a fluid called barium that shows up well on X-rays. Barium is put into a tube. It's inserted into your child’s rectum as an enema. Then the intestine is looked at with an X-ray.
How is encopresis treated?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Treatment for encopresis may include:
Removing the impacted stool
Keeping bowel movements soft so the stool will pass easily
Retraining the intestine and rectum to gain control over bowel movements
Your child’s healthcare provider may prescribe an enema to help remove the impacted stool. An enema is a liquid that is placed in your child's rectum. It helps loosen the hard, dry stool. Never give your child an enema without the approval of your child’s healthcare provider.
Your child's healthcare provider will likely prescribe medicines to help keep your child's bowel movements soft for several months. This will help stop stool from getting impacted again. Over-the-counter medicines may also help. Discuss which medicines are safe with your child's healthcare provider.
Treatment may also include diet and lifestyle changes. Help your child to eat more fiber by:
Adding more fruits and vegetables
Adding more whole-grain cereals and breads. Check the nutrition labels on food packages for foods that have more fiber. As a rule of thumb, great sources of fiber have at least 5 grams per serving. Good sources have 2.5 to 4.9 grams per serving.
What are sources of good fiber?
Good sources of fiber
Whole-wheat bread, granola bread, wheat bran muffins, whole-grain waffles, popcorn
Bran cereals (100% bran cereals are very good sources), shredded wheat cereals, oatmeal, Mueslix, granola, oat bran
Beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, green peas, acorn and butternut squash, spinach, potato with skin, avocado
Cooked prunes, dried figs, apples with peel, dates, papayas, mangos, nectarines, oranges, pears, kiwis, strawberries, applesauce, raspberries, blackberries, raisins
Baked beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, lima beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, chili with beans, trail mix, peanut butter, nuts
Other diet changes that may help include:
Offering your child fruit juice instead of soft drinks. Some fruit juices are higher in fiber than others, and they do add sugar to the child's diet. Discuss the best choices with your child's healthcare provider.
Encouraging your child to drink more fluids, especially water.
Limiting fast foods and junk foods that are often high in fats and sugars. Offer more well-balanced meals and snacks instead.
Limiting drinks with caffeine, such as soda and tea.
Limiting whole milk to 16 ounces a day if your child is 2 years of age or older. But don’t remove all milk from your child’s diet. Children need the calcium in milk to help their bones grow strong.
It’s also a good idea to have your child eat meals on a regular schedule. Eating a meal will often cause a bowel movement within 30 to 60 minutes. Also try to serve breakfast early. This will help give your child time to have a bowel movement at home before rushing off to school.
Try the following ideas to help reduce constipation.
Have your child get more exercise
Exercise helps with digestion. It helps the normal movements the intestines make to push food forward as it is digested. People who don’t move around much are often constipated. Have your child go outside and play rather than watch TV or do other indoor activities.
Set good bowel habits
Try to get your child into a regular toilet habit. Have your child sit on the toilet at least twice a day for up to 5 minutes. Start with a very short amount of time—like 30 seconds—and slowly work up to 5 minutes. Try to do this about 10 to 20 minutes after a meal. Be sure to make this a pleasant time. Don’t get mad at your child for not having a bowel movement. Use a reward system to make it fun. Give stickers or other small treats. Or make posters that show your child's progress.
In some cases, these changes may not help. Or your child’s healthcare provider may find another problem. If so, the provider may recommend using laxatives, stool softeners, or an enema. These products should only be used if recommended by your child's provider. Don’t use them without talking with your child's provider first.
Your child may still have accidents and soil underwear from time to time. This will happen until the intestine and rectum get their muscle tone back again. Preschool children may be able to wear disposable training pants until they can control their bowel. Have your child bring a change of underwear or pants to school. This can help your child feel less embarrassed. It may help improve your child's self-esteem.
What are possible complications of encopresis?
Encopresis can cause both physical and emotional problems.
Stool that is backed up (impacted) in the intestine can cause belly (abdominal) pain. It can also cause a loss of appetite. Some children may get bladder infections.
Children with encopresis often feel upset by the accidents they have when they soil their clothes. In most cases, they can’t control this stool leakage. This can affect how they feel about themselves, or their self-esteem. It can also affect how they deal with other people. Children are often ashamed or embarrassed by this problem. They may stay away from going to school, playing with friends, or spending the night away from home.
As a parent, you may feel guilt, shame, and anger. You may be disgusted by the problem. It’s important to be patient with your child. Don’t blame, get angry at, or punish your child for having an accident. Give your child love and support.
Can encopresis be prevented?
If your child's encopresis is caused by another health problem, treating that condition may help.
You may help prevent stool soiling if you prevent any emotional upsets while your child is toilet training. Children who have a negative experience using the toilet may avoid going to the bathroom. This leads to constipation and, over time, encopresis.
Toilet training should be delayed until your child is emotionally and physically ready. Your child's healthcare provider can help you figure out when your child may be ready. You can also help your child have regular bowel movements by making some diet and lifestyle changes. Give your child high-fiber foods and limit high-fat and high-sugar foods. Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids, such as water. And keep your child physically active.
Living with encopresis
Making changes in your child’s diet and activity level may help prevent constipation and stool soiling. But solving encopresis may be harder for some children. If your child soils their underwear, don’t get angry or punish your child. Consider getting professional help for yourself if you find your getting so frustrated and angry you become unable to help your child.
School-age children who don’t want to use school restrooms may need to use a private bathroom. You may have to talk with the school principal and teachers. You may need to create a plan so that your child can use the restroom as needed. Involving appropriate, understanding school personnel can also help with the emotional issues they may be facing. Consider talking to the school psychologist or school counselor to help develop a supportive school environment for you child. This may be especially important if your child has been bullied because of the encopresis.
It may be helpful to have your child sit on the toilet twice a day for 10 minutes. This helps encourage regular bowel movements. Try doing this 10 to 20 minutes after your child eats. Keeping a notebook or log of stool soiling accidents may also help. You and your child can see if there is a pattern to the accidents. Or you may find there are some triggers that can be controlled. Your child's healthcare provider can also give helpful suggestions and medicines as needed.
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Talk with your child's healthcare provider if your child has hard, painful stools or soils their underwear. Also call your provider right away if your child doesn’t have a bowel movement for 3 or 4 days in a row or complains of abdominal pain.
Key points about encopresis
Encopresis is when a child accidentally leaks stool into their underwear. It is also called stool soiling.
It happens to children ages 4 and older who have already been toilet trained.
It's most often because of long-term (chronic) constipation.
Encopresis can cause both physical and emotional problems.
It can be very embarrassing for your child.
It can be helped with diet and lifestyle changes, and medicines.
Encopresis presents challenges for the family. Coordinating care among professionals in the school and medical community is important for recovery
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
News & Publications
Quantity and Characteristics of Waste at a Level I Trauma Center
The purpose of this study was to quantify and describe the amount of waste generated by an Emergency Department, identify deviations from waste policy and explore areas for waste reduction.
The Climate-Smart Emergency Department: A Primer
Our publication keeps health care professionals up to date on the latest research and clinical advances from Mass General.
Research Institute Blog
News and notes from the largest hospital-based research program in the United States
A podcast devoted to uncovering the stories of Mass General's relentless pursuit to break boundaries and provide exceptional care
The Patient Gateway provides secure online access to your health information whenever you need it. Check upcoming appointments, communicate with your doctor’s office, review medications and pay medical bills—all seamlessly online 24/7.