Toddler, Child
5th Aug 2020

From gas to indigestion to cramping, no one enjoys a tummy ache.

Read on to learn about stomach aches and discomfort in children. Alternatively, you may find these links helpful to jump ahead to different topics:

This information is general in nature and provided as information only. You should always take your child to visit a health professional if they are experiencing any kind of digestive discomfort.

What Are The Common Symptoms Of Stomach Aches?

The digestive system is a complex organisation of organs, all busily working together to process your little one’s food and provide their body with the nutrients it needs.

But, from time to time, a variety of factors may contribute to an array of digestive discomforts. If your child is experiencing any stomach aches or discomfort, your first stop should be the doctor’s office.

Your friendly GP will be able to assess their symptoms and may help to identify potential causes as well as provide tips for relief.

Keep an eye for the following symptoms as they may be useful to discuss during the consultation:

  • Bloating – which your child may describe as feeling ‘too full’ or swollen
  • Cramping – a sharp or twisting feeling in the abdominal region, which your child may describe as a ‘sore tummy’
  • Abdominal spasms – which may feel like a slight twitch
  • Excessive gas – which may cause tummy discomfort or bloating
  • Indigestion – a general feeling of discomfort in the upper abdomen region
  • Nausea – which your little one may describe as the feeling of needing to vomit

If your child experiences any of these symptoms, or if they change or worsen unexpectedly, take them to see a health professional.

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Why Do Children Get Stomach Aches?

It’s not unusual for babies and children to experience mild stomach aches and discomfort. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons that children visit the doctor (1).

However, if your child complains of a sore tummy, it’s important to make an appointment with your GP as there are a range of factors that may be causing or contributing to their discomfort.

Most stomach aches will go away with time (1), but your friendly local doctor will be able to assess your child’s individual condition and can offer unique advice that’s tailored to them.

Some of the common causes of stomach aches and discomfort include:

  • Cramp-like stomach discomfort may be the result of gas or bloating (2)
  • Generalised stomach discomfort may be caused by a bug, indigestion, gas or constipation (2,3)
  • Worry and mild stress may also lead to tummy upsets (1)
  • Digestive discomfort may also be associated with food sensitivities or eating too much food (1)

Remember, while mild stomach aches may be common for children, it’s always important to seek the advice of a health professional if you’re concerned about your little one’s health.

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What Is The Difference Between A Stomach Ache And Medically Diagnosed Colic?

Estimated to affect as many as 1 in 5 babies (4), medically diagnosed colic is a common condition that may affect infants as young as 2-weeks-old (5).

Characterised by excessive and inconsolable crying in otherwise healthy babies, the exact cause of colic remains a mystery.

In addition to these long periods crying, some other symptoms of medically diagnosed colic include: frowning, a flushed face, pulling their legs up to their chest and loud tummy rumblings (5).

Babies usually don’t experience medically diagnosed colic once they are 4 to 6-months old (5). Once your child is older, it’s unlikely that they’re experiencing colic. You can learn more about medically diagnosed infant colic here.

Colic must be diagnosed by a health professional. So, if your child is experiencing any of these symptoms or you’re otherwise concerned about their health or wellbeing, take them to the doctor.

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Tips To Help Relieve Your Child’s Tummy Ache

Gas, indigestion and bloating may make your little one feel uncomfortable. No one likes to see their child feeling poorly and, as a parent, you may be looking for different ways to help relieve their discomfort.

Once a doctor has ruled out any serious causes of your child’s symptoms, these general tips that may provide some relief:

  • Drink plenty of fluids – staying hydrated is important to support healthy digestive function
  • Avoid rich foods – while your child is experiencing a tummy ache, stick to plain foods that are easier for them to digest
  • Try a warm bath – this may be both comforting and relaxing
  • Use a wheat bag or hot water bottle – this may also provide some comfort and relief, but ensure that it isn’t too hot

Keep in mind that it’s always important for a health professional to assess your child if they’re experiencing any kind of tummy upset. Doctors can provide individually tailored advice based on your little one’s symptoms.

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What Should My Child Eat If They Have A Tummy Ache?

Once a doctor has assessed your child’s symptoms, they may make dietary recommendations based on the cause of their tummy ache. However, in general, some foods are less likely to further upset their stomach.

If your child isn’t hungry, don’t push them to eat with a stomach ache.

If they do express interest in food, the following foods may be easier for them to digest:

  • Plain toast
  • Plain crackers
  • Bananas

If you are worried about what to feed your child or are concerned that their diet may be contributing to their discomfort, talk to a health professional.

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What Is The Digestive System And How Does It Work?

Much like the name suggests, our digestive system is made up of the organs in our bodies that take care of digestion. Put simply, this involves breaking down food into nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins as well as vitamins and minerals, and discarding the waste.

Each organ in the digestive system plays and important and unique role in this process, providing the rest of the body with the nutrition it needs to grow and function.

Mouth

Fun fact: digestion starts working before you’ve even bitten into your food! When you see or think about food, the saliva production in your mouth increases in anticipation.

Once you take your first bite and begin eating, the digestion process kicks up a notch. Chewing physically breaks down your food into more manageable chunks, which are then broken down further by your saliva.

Now your meal is ready to be moved to the stomach by the oesophagus: the muscular tube that transports your food after you swallow.

Stomach

Your meal’s disassembly continues in the stomach, where gastric juices and strong muscles in the wall of the stomach help to break it down further.

You could think of your stomach like a mixer, churning and mixing your food with these gastric juices before sending it on to the small intestine for further processing.

Small Intestine

In addition to breaking down food even further, the small intestine plays an important role in helping the body to absorb all of the nutrients from your meal. This includes any protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

The small intestine works in tandem with three other organs to do this:

  • The pancreas – which aids the digestion of fats and protein
  • The liver – which produces the bile that helps us to absorb fat
  • The gallbladder – which stores the bile until the body needs it

Liver & Large Intestine

After the small intestine has busily extracted nutrients from the meal, they are sent to the liver.

Here, they are either stored or distributed to the rest of the body to support various important bodily functions.

Any remaining food is considered waste and enters the large intestine where the body has its last chance to filter our any remaining water or nutrients before it is flushed from the body (6-8).

More Than Just Digestion (9)

Did you know that in addition to digesting food, our digestive system also plays a role in our immune system? The gut is home to 70-80% of the body’s immune cells.

Therefore, a healthy digestive system is important for more than acting as a food processing facility, it also supports a healthy immune system to fight off unwanted bugs and germs.

Click here to discover the link between your child’s gut and their immune system health.

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Tips To Support Your Child’s Digestive System Health

As a parent, if you’re curious about what you may do to help support your little one’s digestive system health and function, the following tips may help:

  • Keep them hydrated, this helps to support regular bowel movements
  • Encourage regular play and physical activity as this may support the digestive process
  • Incorporate high-fibre foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrains into their healthy, balanced diet
  • Offer appropriate portion sizes as overeating may cause an upset tummy
  • Reduce their intake of processed foods, which may be high in saturated fat as well as low in fibre and important nutrients
  • Teach your little one to chew their food properly before swallowing. This is the first step of breaking down their meal and may aid easier digestion
  • Support their healthy balance of gut bacteria with foods such as yoghurt (read the label to ensure you choose one with live cultures), fermented vegetables and kefir (a type of fermented milk drink) or a probiotic supplement.

If your child is experiencing mild stomach aches and pains, keep in mind it’s a common experience for many babies and children, and will often pass with time.

However, it’s always important to take them to see a doctor to identify the cause of their discomfort and receive personalised advice. If their symptoms persist, worsen or change unexpectedly, talk to your health professional.

Have you found this information useful? If so you may enjoy the following:

The Most Common Illnesses For Children And How To Spot Them 

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References

  1. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. 2018. Kids Health Info – Abdominal pain. [online] Available at: https://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Abdominal_pain/ [Accessed 29 April 2020]
  2. Raising Children Network. 2017. Stomach Ache. [online] Available at: http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/stomache_ache.html [Accessed 29 April 2020]
  3. Better Health Victoria. 2013. Abdominal Pain in Children. [online] Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/abdominal-pain-in-children [Accessed 29 April 2020]
  4. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct. 2018. Colic in babies. [online] Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/colic-in-babies[Accessed 25 Feb. 2020].
  5. Better Health Victoria. (n.d.). Colic. [online] Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/colic[Accessed 25 Feb. 2020].
  6. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct. 2019. Digestive system. [online]. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/digestive-system [Accessed 30 April 2020]
  7. Cheng, L, O’Grady, G, Du, P, et al. 2010. Gastrointestinal system. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Systems Biology and Medicine, 2 (1). 65-79.
  8. Ogobuiro, I & Tuma, F. 2020. Physiology, Gastrointestinal. StatPearls Publishing. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537103/ [Accessed 30 April 2020]
  9. Furness, J, Kunze, W & Clerc, N. 1999. Nutrient tasting and signalling mechanisms in the gut. II. The intestine as a sensory organ: neural, endocrine, and immune responses. The American Journal of Physiology, 277 (5). G922-G928.

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