How Bad Is It to Hold Your Poop?

It’s a fact of life: everyone poops. How often we have bowel movements and what the stool looks like, however, varies a certain amount from person to person. This individuality, along with the cultural taboos around body functions, is the reason why there are many misconceptions about bowel movements.

Many people do not know the definition of a typical frequency for bowel movements and may have concern over “holding in” a bowel movement for a period of time. It’s not necessary to have a bowel movement every day (although some people do) but how bad is it to hold in the stool when the urge "to go" hits?

Generally, doing so won't cause any harm, but making it a habit can result in some undesirable health effects.

Toilet paper rolls
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Defining Constipation

To understand why it’s important to relieve the bowels when the urge hits, it’s necessary to have some background on constipation.

Having a bowel movement fewer than once every three days, straining on the toilet, feeling like the bowel hasn’t emptied, or passing stool that is hard are all signs of constipation.

Constipation is common and most people experience it at some point in their lives. Some cases of being stopped up for a time are a result of dietary issues, such as not eating enough fiber or not drinking enough water.

For some, however, constipation can be a chronic problem. Chronic constipation has a variety of causes, including the use of some medications or a functional problem such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Constipation is uncomfortable and can cause a significant amount of worry and stress. In cases of uncomplicated constipation, taking in more exercise, adding dietary fiber, and drinking more water can help relieve the problem.

Over-the-counter laxatives and enemas are also used to treat constipation, but care should be taken in their use as some can worsen constipation by causing the bowel to become dependent on them to pass stool.

However, because constipation can be the result of a serious underlying medical issue or a side effect of a medication when it becomes more than a once in a while a problem it should be discussed with a physician.

Ignoring the Urge "To Go"

Constipation is not the same as ignoring the need to move the bowels. Food is broken down and used in the digestive tract until it passes all the way through the small and large intestine and is stored in the rectum as stool.

The body has a system for sending a signal when the rectum is full and needs to be emptied. It’s possible to ignore this sensation for a time, and perhaps put off a trip to the bathroom until there’s a more opportune moment.

Waiting to go to the bathroom once in a while won’t do any permanent harm, but it shouldn’t become a habit because doing this too often can have an effect on the body. Holding in stool for so long that it creates a problem is rare in adults but more common in children, especially toddlers.

Holding in stool for too long could lead to hard stool, which can make a bowel movement more difficult and uncomfortable.

Predicting the Urge

Our bodies have a built-in system called the gastrocolic reflex that brings on an urge to pass a bowel movement after eating. It's most prevalent in children, who often use the toilet after a meal, but then becomes less common as we grow into adults (although some still have the urge to pass stool after a meal).

Adults have work or school obligations that translate into ignoring the urge to move the bowels when it’s inconvenient or when there’s nowhere to go. Scheduling bowel movements may help in avoiding a problem with having to go when adult schedules get in the way.

Training the body to use the toilet at the same time each day, such as first thing in the morning, can be beneficial for people who are coping with constipation.

In cases where constipation is severe, undergoing bowel retraining with the guidance of a trained specialist can also be effective. The goal should be to have bowel movements that are soft and easy to pass.

When Holding It Can Become a Problem

The longer a stool is held in the rectum the more water is absorbed from it, making the stool harder and therefore more difficult to pass. Passing hard stools are associated with fissures, which are tears in the anal canal.

Fissures can be quite painful, can bleed, and may take some time to heal, which is why it’s important to go to the bathroom when the urge strikes and not delay too long. Any blood seen in or on the stool should always be a reason to see a physician, even if it's thought to be a fissure.

In extreme cases, holding stool in repeatedly and for long periods of time could result in a loss of sensation. Over time the muscles in the rectum stretch and the feeling that one has when it’s time to empty the bowels will diminish, making it more difficult to know when to go to the bathroom.

This, in turn, can lead to further difficulties with inadvertently holding in stool longer and potentially leading to hard stools and constipation. This condition will require treatment by a physician. However, this is not common in healthy adults and won't happen from occasionally holding in stool.

Withholding Stool in Children

It’s more common for children to hold in their stool, which they do for a variety of reasons. The age at which this tends to become a problem is at about 2 and a half and goes until about the age of 6 years

Some children don’t want to stop their play to have a bowel movement and instead will hold it (this is true for urinating as well, and sometimes leads to wetting). In some cases, having a bout with constipation and a subsequent painful stool can cause a child to hold in their stool out of a fear of repeating the pain.

In other cases, toilet training can be difficult and some children withhold a bowel movement for complex emotional reasons. This can all lead to hard stools and constipation, which reinforces the withholding behavior because bowel movements become painful events or because a bowel movement is associated with stress.

A pediatrician should be contacted in the case that a child withholds stool, cries during or after bowel movements, or has abdominal pain.

A Word From Verywell

Rest assured that in most cases, holding in a bowel movement and waiting for a more convenient time is not going to cause long-lasting harm. Most adults will find the need to delay going to the toilet for practical reasons, and as long as it doesn’t become a habit or there isn’t constipation present, it shouldn’t lead to any problems.

However, holding in stool for long periods of time or on a consistent basis could lead to hard stools or constipation, so the best option is to take time to have a bowel movement when the urge hits.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • If rectal muscles are stretched and feeling or the urge to "go" is lost, how does a doctor treat this condition?

    One treatment option for rectal hyposensitivity is bowel retraining with sensory biofeedback, which involves using sensory stimuli to assist with bowel movements. Other options are electrical or magnetic nerve stimulation or, if nothing else works, surgery.

  • How do you know if your child is withholding stool?

    If a child is withholding stool, you may notice their stomach is slightly pushed out (abdominal distention). A child who is withholding may also straighten or cross their legs, stand on their toes, or clench their butt . They may also look strained or uncomfortable and have a red face.

  • How can I help my child if they suffer from stool withholding?

    To help a child with stool withholding, keep the stool soft through a diet high in fiber, fruit, and vegetables, and limit dairy, pasta, bread, and bananas. Make sure your child drinks at least a few cups of water every day. It is also helpful to have your child try to go to the bathroom several times per day even if they do not have the urge.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®)–Patient Version.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. What Should You Do When Your Kid Refuses to Poop?

  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Treatment of Fecal Incontinence.

  4. Iqbal F, Askari A, Adaba F, et al. Factors Associated With Efficacy of Nurse-led Bowel Training of Patients With Chronic Constipation. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2015;13(10):1785-1792. doi:10.1016/j.cgh.2015.05.037

  5. Rajindrajith S, Devanarayana NM, Crispus Perera BJ, Benninga MA. Childhood constipation as an emerging public health problemWorld J Gastroenterol. 2016;22(30):6864-6875. doi:10.3748/wjg.v22.i30.6864

  6. Burgell RE, Scott SM. Rectal hyposensitivityJ Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2012;18(4):373-384. doi:10.5056/jnm.2012.18.4.373

  7. Mount Sinai. Constipation and stool withholding.

Additional Reading
  • Grothe R. "Mayo Clinic Medical Edge: Toddler withholding bowel movements may need reassurance.” Chicago Tribune.

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.