Stomach aches are a common complaint all parents hear. Learn more about stomach ache in children – causes, symptoms, home remedies and danger signs.
“Mommy, I have a tummy ache!” This is something every Mom has heard, and if your little one hasn’t started speaking yet, you’ve no doubt noticed signs of a stomach ache. That is how common this condition is among children!
It is said that 1 in 3 children see a doctor for stomach ache, and most of these are not at all serious. Such complaints are seen the most in children under 12, unless they’re related to adolescence, like menstrual cramps in girls.
A child’s stomach ache can be of various kinds, and the cause can be literally anything. The pain could be from anywhere in the abdomen – the stomach, the intestines or even the chest. While older children can describe where the pain is coming from, babies and toddlers won’t be able to. They’ll become fussier, draw the legs up towards the stomach and not eat properly.
Since this is one complaint you’re going to hear a few times, it’s worth our while to get to understand the common causes of stomach ache in children, the symptoms, home remedies and when you need to see the doctor.
Please note that the causes listed below are by no means an exhaustive list of all the causes of stomach ache in children, but the most common ones.
Common Causes of Stomach Ache in Children
Colic is the most common cause of abdominal pain in babies till 3-4 months of age. The exact cause of colic is still unknown, though doctors think it comes from quick, intense contractions of the intestine. Colic pain is usually experienced in late afternoons and early evenings, and babies cry a lot during this time. They may also fuss, pass gas and pull the legs up to the stomach.
2. Gas or Flatulence
Gas is another common cause of abdominal pain – in kids and adults too! There are many reasons for this, like drinking too many carbonated drinks or eating food that is too spicy. In babies, this may be because of swallowing air while feeding or as a reaction to formula or certain foods once they start solids. Babies may make grunting or straining noises if they’re feeling gassy.
3. Reflux or Indigestion
Reflux or heartburn happens when some of the acidic stomach contents come back up the food pipe and create a burning sensation in the chest and stomach. Babies with reflux have trouble eating, hiccup or cough frequently and spit up a lot. Severe reflux may have babies not gaining enough weight. Older children experience reflux as a burning sensation, which may give them trouble sleeping. Sometimes, reflux may be due to a more serious disorder called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
Constipation is another reason kids get a dull pain in their tummies. When children’s bowel movements aren’t regular or they haven’t pooped in a while, the backlog is bound to cause pain, especially around the belly button area. Watch if the child has dry stools or is straining too hard – these are tell tale signs of constipation. Constipation can be due to dietary issues, insufficient water intake or as a side effect of some medicines.
5. Gastroenteritis or Food poisoning
Young children put all kinds of things into their mouths, which makes them particularly prone to food poisoning or gastroenteritis. In such cases, the tummy pain is usually accompanied with diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. It could be because of putting random objects in the mouth, consuming unhygienic or spoiled food, or consumption of inedible substances.
6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Some children have alternating diarrhea and constipation along with a general stomach pain that worsens at night – this is usually due to irritable bowel syndrome. Children with IBS have sensitive intestines that overreact to stress or certain foods. Such children may have someone else in the family with the same condition.
7. Food Intolerance or Allergies
There are increasing cases of food allergies nowadays, and a stomach ache is one of the many symptoms. Everyone’s digestive system is different and each one of us may have a sensitivity to a certain food. A food allergy may also cause vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, rashes, leaky nose or a swollen tongue. Food allergies and sensitivities usually run in families. Common foods that cause allergies are dairy products, wheat, eggs and nuts. Breastfed babies may have an intolerance to some foods in the mother’s diet.
8. Bacterial or Viral Infection
Kids catch infections very easily, since their immune systems are still developing. A stomach infection can be either bacterial or viral, and can cause a stomach ache in either case. Even infections like the common cold, flu or pneumonia can cause tummy ache, along with a fever, cough and sore throat. While older children can blow their noses or spit mucus, in babies it can enter the stomach and cause irritation.
9. Urinary Tract Infection
If the pain is in the lower abdomen and the child feels pain or a burning sensation while passing urine, it could be a urinary tract infection. This is more common in girls, owing to the short length of the urethra which makes it more vulnerable to infection. In severe cases, it may be accompanied by a fever and vomiting.
10. Anxiety or Stress
We’ve all experienced a discomfort in our stomach when we feel stressed or anxious, and kids may express this as stomach ache. This ‘butterflies in the tummy’ feeling is usually around the belly button or in the pit of the stomach. It may recur whenever the stressful situation arises, and goes away otherwise. The child may seem healthy other than this particular ache.
11. Adolescent Issues
In adolescents, there can be other reasons for pain in the abdomen. In girls, it can be due to period cramps or a twisted ovary. In boys, it can actually be a pain in the testicular region, which they may refer to as ‘tummy pain’.
12. Surgical Issues
Sometimes stomach pain may be due to more serious issues with the body physiology, like appendicitis or intussusception. Appendicitis is when the appendix becomes swollen and inflamed. This results in sharp pain which starts in the middle of the abdomen and then moves to the lower right side. This may be accompanied by fever and vomiting. Intussusception is rarer, and happens when part of the stomach slides into or over itself, blocking it.
In some children, stomach pains come and go, with no apparent reason. This is referred to as Recurrent Abdominal Pain or RAP. RAP occurs in about 1 in 6 children, and usually goes away on its own. In case the doctor suspects a parasitic infection, anti parasitic medicines will solve the problem. In any other case, it is not recommended to give children any medicine without consulting the doctor. For common stomach aches, home remedies can take care of the pain without too much effort.
Home Remedies for Stomach Ache in Children
1. Breastfeed. Babies delicate digestive systems are more receptive to breast milk than formula, and breast milk also contains antibodies that prevent infection. Make sure that baby has a proper latch to prevent him from swallowing excess air. Burp baby after every feeding to let out trapped air.
2. Try baby exercises. Let your baby spend as much time on his tummy as possible. The gentle pressure on his abdomen will relieve any gas soothe pain. You can also lay baby on his back and move his legs back and forth, like riding a bicycle. This movement also helps to let out any trapped gas.
3. Follow age recommendations for food. When starting solids, follow all age recommendations strictly. Avoid cow’s milk, sugar, salt and honey before the age of one. Skip the store bought gripe water – try a homemade one instead.
4. Try a rocking motion. Gentle repetitive motions like rocking or swinging help soothe colic pains. Some babies feel good lying on a running washing machine or when being carried around in a vehicle.
5. Let the child rest. In many cases, just lying down relieves the tummy pain. Apart from letting the child rest, rubbing his tummy or distracting him with books or stories also helps.
6. Try the Pawanmuktasana. Pawanmuktasana, also called the gas releasing pose, is a great way to soothe stomach pain due to gas. Lie down flat on the back and lift the legs at a 90 degree angle from the hip. Bend both knees and bring the thighs against the abdomen, using the hands to press them closer to the body.
7. Use a hot water bottle. Place a hot water bottle or a heating pad on the tummy when lying down. Heat helps increase blood flow to the surface of the skin, taking away from the pain inside the abdomen. Make sure the pad or bottle is not too hot.
8. Put your child on the potty. In many cases, a trip to the toilet may solve the problem. Ask your child to try pooping. If the stool is too hard, try having him sit in some warm water.
9. Offer lots of fluids. Dehydration is both a cause of stomach pain as well as an effect of it, particularly in cases like diarrhea. Lots of fluids at regular intervals is the answer. For babies under six months, breastfeed on demand. For older children, avoid dairy products or drinks with caffeine. Choose clear fluids like water, broth or diluted fruit juice.
10. Make ginger tea. Ginger contains gingerol, which reduces nausea and vomiting. Ginger also contains anti inflammatory properties that neutralize stomach acids and relieve pain. Boil 1 cup of water with 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger for 5 minutes and steep for 10 minutes. Strain before drinking.
11. Try peppermint tea. Peppermint is known to calm the stomach muscles and increases the flow of bile, a digestive liquid. Boil a few fresh mint leaves in a cup of water. Cool and strain before drinking.
12. Make chamomile tea. Chamomile is anti-inflammatory and relaxes the digestive muscles. It helps relieve cramps and promotes better movement of food through the digestive tract. Make the tea using one tea bag per cup of water.
13. Offer rice water. Rice water, also called rice tea or rice soup, is the water leftover from cooking rice and has been used traditionally as a remedy for diarrhea. Rice water contains compounds that relieves stomach pain. Based on the child’s preferences, add some salt or honey to the rice water.
14. Give bland foods. Spicy and greasy foods can worsen stomach pain and accompanying symptoms, so choose bland foods like dry toast, crackers or rice. These are more easily digestible and don’t irritate the stomach like spicy foods. Serve these in several small meals throughout the day.
15. Try the CRAP diet. The CRAP diet stands for Cherries, Raisins, Apricots and Prunes. This is the ideal diet for kids suffering from constipation. For younger children, puree the foods to prevent a choking hazard.
16. Try the BRAT diet. The BRAT diet is for the opposite event – diarrhea. BRAT stands for Banana, Rice, Applesauce and Toast. All these foods are bland and easily digestible, and can calm an upset stomach.
17. Include yogurt. The cause for many abdominal ailments is a sluggish gut. Probiotic food like yogurt helps keep the gut healthy, providing it with active bacteria that can get the digestive system running smoothly.
When to see the Doctor
As mentioned earlier, most cases of stomach ache in children are not serious, but some can be. If your child exhibits any of the following symptoms, he should be taken to the doctor:
- Severe tummy pain that wakes him up from sleep
- Fever or chills
- Pain that gets worse on moving
- Pain that increases in a certain part of the abdomen
- Diarrhea or vomiting that does not stop
- Refusal to eat or drink anything
- Weight loss
- Hard or swollen abdomen
- Skin rash
- Trouble passing urine/Less than four wet nappies for babies
- Worsening of any of the symptoms
If your child is a baby and you notice any of these, take her to the emergency right away. Do the same for your older child if you notice any of these:
- bloody or bright green vomit
- blood in poop
Your doctor will evaluate the child and may prescribe tests for blood, urine or stools. Sometimes, the doctor may ask for an x-ray or other specialized tests.
Disclaimer: Please remember that none of this is a substitute for medical advice.