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Tummy Troubles: Decoding Common Digestive Issues in Kids

Mom carrying and soothing child

An upset stomach is a common complaint among young children and can be a source of anxiety for parents and caregivers. Nobody likes it when their child is suffering, and if a stomach ache is prolonged or severe, you might be worried that something more serious is going on.

An upset stomach can be caused by a number of things, including but not limited to allergies, illness, anxiety, new foods, and, less frequently, a genetic disorder or structural obstruction. Here’s how to know when to call reinforcements versus when cuddles and patience should do the trick.

Common Digestive Issues in Newborn

In the first few weeks of life, your baby’s digestive system is still developing and gaining strength. Some of the digestive system’s muscles aren’t as developed as they eventually will be, and your child is still learning how to eat and drink.

Reflux

As far as eating goes, even adults sometimes swallow “down the wrong tube”—imagine how it must feel when you’ve never eaten before! The combination of inexperience and immature swallowing muscles means “spitting up” is common and a normal part of development. Be prepared with wipes or rags and fresh shirts; when it comes to babies, what goes in is bound to come back out one way or another. Spitting up isn’t cause for alarm in and of itself, but if it is in significant amounts or has an abnormal color to it, you’ll want to talk through that with your baby’s pediatrician.

Dyschezia

There might also be problems with food coming out the other end – pooping! Infant dyschezia, also known as “grunting baby syndrome” is a problem with coordination of the muscles required to stool. Stooling is a learned reflex, which means it takes time and practice to develop. Some babies may struggle more than others to learn it! Infants with dyschezia do not have hard stools (which is known as constipation), but they DO struggle, grunt and cry for up to 30 minutes prior to pooping. We believe they cry to help increase abdominal pressure to get the stool out (I call this “pushing against a closed door”), but not because they’re in pain. If the poop comes out nice and soft, and is a green, brown, or yellow color you should have no reason for alarm.

Colic

Another common challenge among newborns is the dreaded colic. It’s a common condition that impacts roughly 20% of newborns and is commonly said to be a digestive issue caused by a sensitivity to gas. If your baby is otherwise eating well, gaining weight, and healthy, colic is usually not cause for concern. Surviving colic takes patience and will go away on its own over time.

Common Childhood Tummy Problems

Kids get belly aches for most of the same reasons grown-ups do, with a few being more common among children. Most belly aches and tummy trouble experienced during childhood fall under one of these categories.

  • Indigestion: Discomfort or pain in the stomach or abdomen is considered indigestion (or dyspepsia), a catch-all term for abdominal discomfort. Indigestion includes fullness after eating or drinking too much, heartburn, nausea, bloating, and everything in between.
  • Constipation: Constipation is characterized as bowel movements or stools that are hard, dry, and difficult or painful to pass. Childhood bowel problems may be more common during toilet training as children are more likely to withhold (delay using the bathroom), causing stool to back up.
  • Anxiety: If your child is anxious about an upcoming activity or test, has changes in their environment due to big life events, is uncomfortable or feels like they don’t fit in at school, and so on, their stress can present with physical symptoms. This kind of tension typically comes with additional signs like clinginess, change in eating or sleeping habits, or trouble focusing.
  • Stomach flu: Viral gastroenteritis, more commonly called the stomach flu, is caused by a viral infection (usually rotavirus, norovirus, or adenovirus), which causes inflammation, swelling, and irritation in the gastrointestinal lining. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There is some risk of dehydration as your body fights the virus, but viral gastroenteritis usually resolves without treatment.
  • Digestive obstruction: Children like to explore the world around them, and one of the first ways they do that is by putting things in their mouths. Vigilant as you might be, kids sometimes swallow things they shouldn’t, and tiny bellies don’t like that. Contact your pediatrician immediately if you think your child has swallowed a foreign object.
  • Appendicitis: While most tummy aches aren’t cause for concern, an inflamed appendix is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. If your child has stomach pain on the lower right side of the abdomen, particularly if they experience “rebound pain” when pressure is applied and abruptly removed, you should get them to a doctor as quickly as possible

Tummy Ache Symptoms in Children

When it comes down to it, you usually don’t need to know what caused stomach trouble; you only need to know how serious it is and what, if anything, to do about it.

Common Tummy Trouble Symptoms (When to Wait)

  • Pain in the abdomen that does not inhibit daily activities
  • Stomach cramps
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

More Serious Tummy Trouble Symptoms (When to Get Help)

  • Severe pain that increases with movement
  • Consistent movement (constant attempts to get comfortable or alleviate pain)
  • Persistent fever
  • Blood in stool or vomit
  • Nausea and vomiting lasting more than a few days
  • Yellowed skin
  • Severe tenderness when the abdomen is touched
  • Swelling in the abdomen

Understanding the potential causes of digestive issues in children can help you determine whether they can be resolved with cuddles, patience, and time or if they’re something more serious. Perhaps the most important consideration is the physical and emotional well-being of you and your child. If you’re worried, that’s reason enough to call us. Sometimes the best solution for a belly ache is to take it seriously, even if it isn’t serious, so your child can get back to feeling better.

Ashley Brienza, M.D.

Ashley Brienza, M.D.

Ashley practices pediatrics in our West Jordan office.

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