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There are plenty of reasons why your child’s stomach might feel icky. Here are the most common culprits—and what to do about them.
A bump on the knee, a sore throat, a stuffy nose—as parents, we’ve got those kid complaints covered. But when our kids utter the words "Mommy, my tummy hurts," everything comes to a screeching halt. Bellyaches are more complicated. They require an investigation. Need help determining what’s causing your kid stomach distress? Here, all the clues you need to save the great belly ache mystery.
The clues: Bowel movements have disappeared or become infrequent. When they do appear, however, they're hard, dry, and pellet-like. Sometimes, bed-wetting or daytime accidents are involved.
The investigation: Ask your child if it hurts to poop (passing hard stool causes pain) and about frequency. "Kids don't need to move their bowels daily, but you want to find out if your child's routine has changed, especially if he or she is pooping less than three times a week," says Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician in New York City. Finally, ask your child to point to where it hurts. "If your child indicates the lower left side of their tummy, it's likely constipation," says Dr. Trachtenberg. That's where the descending colon is located and where hard stool gets stuck.
The cause: Holding poop for too long; lacking enough water and/or fiber; and having too much high-fat foods are all common culprits. "When kids avoid the bathroom because they don't want to stop playing or they're embarrassed, they began to override their body's natural reflex that helps you go poop. The bowel movements retreat and get drier and harder to push out," says Dr. Trachtenberg. When water or fiber is scarce—or slowly-digested fats are rampant—the colon absorbs too much water from stool, making them hard and dry.
The fix: Kids need a regular bathroom routine. "Always have them try after eating, when their gastro reflex is activated and food is getting pushed down and their body is ready to go," says Dr. Trachtenberg. Shoot for a bathroom visit every four hours. Also, include at least one fiber-rich food in each meal and snack. "Lay out veggies and fruit to dip into dressings—and have things like raisins and cranberries to add into oatmeal," says Dr. Trachtenberg. (Some fiber-rich picks include raspberries, blackberries, pears, apples, peas, broccoli, black beans, and 100 percent whole grains.) If you're finding it difficult to shoehorn fiber in, add a supplement to the mix, such as Culturelle® Kids Regularity Gentle-Go™ Formula. It contains as much dietary fiber as a small apple. (Bonus: Culturelle is sugar-‡, dairy-^ and gluten‐free▲, and because it has no added flavor, it's easy to mix into your child's favorite foods.)
The clues: Vague belly pain suddenly appears before bed, a new experience, or a test. This tummy ache may regularly appear each Sunday night.
The investigation: Ask your child about how he or she is feeling. Are you nervous about your test? Are you worried about not knowing anyone at the party tomorrow? Also, if your child wants to play despite belly complaints, that's a sign that the ouch may be due to emotions—not sickness, says Dr. Trachtenberg.
The cause: Kids (and grownups) experience worry in their bellies. "The mind body connection is a powerful thing", says Dr. Trachtenberg.
The fix: Tummy rubs, warm baths, and a well-placed hot water bottle can each work wonders. "These things relax a child—and relax the muscles in the belly, as well", says Dr. Trachtenberg. For tummy rubs, start at the top of the belly and work your way down, making small circles in a clockwise rotation.
The clues: Beyond toots and burps, gassy kids can also feel pressure in their bellies and have a hard tummy.
The investigation: If you're hearing (and/or smelling) the evidence, no more investigating is needed. But if more digging is required, ask about recent food and drink consumption and consult the "The cause" below.
The cause: Gas is common and natural and it occurs when air gets trapped in the lower abdomen or stomach. Sometimes the toots come when a child has swallowed air thanks to eating while walking around, eating too fast, chewing gum, or using a straw. Other common causes include drinking carbonated beverages and consuming high-fiber, high-fat or high-sugar foods.
The fix: Have your child move around and bend at the wasit. Changing positions can often be enough to release painful pressure. Belly rubs—in a gentle, circular, clockwise motion—can also help loosen a pocket of gas bubbles.
The clues: Loose, watery stools accompanied (or followed) by a course of antibiotics.
The investigation: Belly symptoms can go hand-in-hand with antibiotics, but they often don't occur simultaneously. In fact, your child still may get the runs about a week after antibiotic treatment begins.
The cause: Antibiotics work by killing bacteria in your child's intestines. Unfortunately, antibiotics kill the good bacteria along with the bad and can cause diarrhea, gas, and cramps.
The fix: If your child has stomach pain or diarrhea while taking an antibiotic it's worth speaking with the doctor to see if the medicine may be better tolerated with food, different time of day, or even if the dose can be adjusted, says Dr. Trachtenberg.
Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, a board-certified pediatrician in New York City, is providing this information for educational purposes. Dr. Jen encourages you to still seek advice from your child’s pediatrician regarding their tummy troubles.
Culturelle® and Gentle-Go™ are trademarks of DSM.
‡Contains sucrose which adds a dietarily insignificant amount of sugar. Not a reduced calorie food.
^While there are no dairy-derived ingredients in the product, it is produced in a facility that also handles dairy ingredients.
▲Meets the FDA’s guidelines for gluten-free.
*THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN EVALUATED BY THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION. THIS PRODUCT IS NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, CURE OR PREVENT ANY DISEASE.