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Bristol stool chart

There are seven types of stools (faeces) according to the Bristol Stool Chart. The Bristol Stool Chart or Bristol Stool Scale is a medical aid designed to classify faeces into seven groups.

What should my stools look like?

The type of stool or faeces depends on the time it spends in the colon. After you pass faeces, what you see in the toilet bowl is basically the result of your diet, fluids, medications and lifestyle. You can use the Bristol Stool Chart to check what your stools are telling you.

The Bristol Stool Chart shows seven categories of stool. Every person will have different bowel habits, but the important thing is that your stools are soft and easy to pass – like types 3 and 4 below.

 Bristol stool chart bowel movement
Reproduced with kind permission of Dr KW Heaton, formerly Reader in Medicine at the University of Bristol. ©2000-2014, Norgine group of companies.

Reference: Heaton, K W & Lewis, S J 1997, 'Stool form scale as a useful guide to intestinal transit time'. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, vol.32, no.9, pp.920 - 924. Retrieved on 2/3/2007.

What are the signs of a healthy bowel?

Being ‘regular’ is a way of describing good bowel habits or normal bowel function. We often talk about our bowels being regular but this is often misunderstood as meaning that you go to the toilet to pass faeces every day. It’s common for people to empty their bowel once a day, although it’s still normal to be more or less often. Being regular really means that soft yet well-formed bowel motions are easily passed and that this happens anywhere from 1–3 times a day to 3 times a week. 

The bowel usually wants to empty about 30 minutes after a meal (commonly breakfast), but this can vary from person to person.

Good bowel function for adults

There’s more to good bowel function than just being regular. For example, you should be able to:

  • hold on for a short time after you feel the first urge to go to the toilet - this allows time to get there and remove clothing without any accidental loss of faeces
  • pass a bowel motion within about a minute of sitting down on the toilet
  • pass a bowel motion easily and without pain - ideally, you shouldn’t be straining on the toilet or struggling to pass a bowel motion which is hard and dry, and
  • completely empty your bowel when you pass a motion - you don’t have to go back to the toilet soon after, to pass more.

People who pass bowel motions at the wrong time or in the wrong place may be experiencing poor bowel control, or faecal incontinence. They may also pass wind when they don't want to.

Poor bowel control is more common than you may think - about one in 20 people experience poor bowel control. It's often not talked about, but both men and women can have poor bowel control. It's more common as you get older, but young people can also have poor bowel control. Sometimes, people with poor bowel control also have poor bladder control and may leak urine.

Good bowel function for children

Children usually develop the ability to be toilet trained by about three years of age. 'Soiling' is when the bowels are emptied in places other than the toilet. Even after a child is toilet trained, there may be occasional accidents with soiling (poo) in your child's underwear.

If a child is unable to be toilet trained or has regular poo accidents after the age of three to four years, then they should be medically assessed. If a child has been toilet trained and at a later stage starts to soil, this also needs medical assessment.

How many children get soiling?

About 1-3% of children can have this problem and some of them may have wetting as well. It is more common in boys.

Soiling may vary from a 'skid mark' to larger amounts that need to be removed from underwear before it can be washed.

Why do children soil?

In almost all cases soiling happens because the large bowel is not emptying properly and the child is constipated. Constipation is very common and occurs at some time in up to 25% of children. If it is not recognised and treated, bowel actions may become harder and less frequent. Over time, stretching of the bowel makes it less sensitive, so the child may not feel when poo needs to come out and therefore has an accident. It is quite possible that there is hard poo inside the bowel, but the soiling is soft runny poo leaking around the hard mass, and so you don't realise that constipation is the underlying problem.

Read more on children's incontinence

Read more of caring for a child or an adult with incontinence for practical toileting tips.

Quick tips

Make sure to speak with your doctor if you think you have constipation or diarrhoea and urgency. Some treatment options include:

  • Using a laxative;
  • A healthy diet containing plenty of different fibre rich foods;
  • Drinking lots of fluids;
  • Incorporating exercise to keep bowels healthy and regular.
To find out which foods are best to eat, take a look at the Healthy Diet and Bowels factsheet.

Read more

We have a number of fact sheets available for download on bladder and bowel health. Visit our Resources page for a more advanced search or have a look at some of the popular factsheets below.

Poor Bowel Control

Healthy Bladder and Bowel Habits

Looking after your bowel: A guide to improving bowel function

Using a bladder or bowel diary

Caring for someone with incontinence factsheet

Caring for someone with bladder and bowel problems booklet