I realize this may sound gross, especially at breakfast, but lots of people have trouble defecating. (That’s the medical word for pooping.) People with constipation can pass big, hard poops once or twice a week or lots of small poop pellets every day.

Some people have constipation regularly, while others have it every once in a while. Some people with constipation have no symptoms other than having to work hard to push out a big poop. Others may feel bloated (gassy) or have a “stomachache” for days before they go. (It’s not really your stomach that hurts in this situation, so doctors refer to it as abdominal pain.) Sometimes constipation comes on so suddenly that you double over in pain.

Food begins its journey to the intestinal tract the moment it enters your mouth. During the process of mastication (that’s the medical word for chewing), saliva is released to soften food and make it easier to swallow. The next two stops are the stomach and small intestine, where acids, chemicals and lots of water are used to digest the food and enable you to absorb its microscopic nutrients into your bloodstream.

The soupy material that then enters the large intestine is made up of waste and water that was used in the digestive process. The main purpose of the large intestine is to reabsorb this excess water. (If you develop diarrhea from an intestinal virus, the large intestine becomes “sick” and can’t reabsorb water properly. That’s why diarrhea varies from a yogurtlike to watery consistency.)

Peristalsis (pear-a-STAL-sis) is the term that describes how food is pushed through the intestinal tract. Muscles in the intestines contract and relax in a coordinated fashion. Think of the “wave” that occurs at sporting events, and you’ll have a good idea how peristalsis works.

The main reason people get constipated is because waste moves through their large intestine slowly. That allows more water to be reabsorbed, which results in a firmer, harder poop. If you experience pain with constipation, it’s because your large intestine has to work harder to push that poop to its final destination.

There are very few medical conditions that cause constipation in kids. Most of the time, it occurs because of dietary factors or because constipation runs in the family. (No pun intended.)

Foods that can cause constipation include milk, cheese, yogurt, white rice and processed grains such as white bread, crackers and pasta. Apples and unripe bananas may cause constipation in some people.

To prevent constipation:

●Eat more foods that are high in fiber (including beans, peas, bran flakes, brown rice and whole-wheat bread).

●Eat fewer foods that can cause constipation.

●Drink plenty of water.

●Get lots of exercise.

●Listen to your body when it’s time to poop. If you put off going to the bathroom, your poop will become harder and more difficult to pass.

Some people have problems with constipation even though they’re careful about their diet. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor, because there are things he or she can do to help the situation.

—Howard J. Bennett

Bennett is a Washington pediatrician. His Web site, www.howardjbennett.com, includes past KidsPost articles and other cool stuff.