My Tummy Hurts: How to Help Children Cope with Stomachaches

When your little one (or your not-so-little adolescent) complains of belly pain, your reaction might be one of two extremes. If you’re like some parents and guardians, you’ve heard it before and you’ll brush it off as just another boy-who-cried-wolf bid for attention. Other parents can’t stop thinking the worst. (“This is probably the one time she honestly has a life-threatening illness.”) So you pull out all the stops, wrap her up in woolen blankets, pump her full of antacids, take her temperature, fix a spot of peppermint tea and call the doctor to make an appointment.

Children's stomachaches often go away without doing anything.

Length of time, location on the belly and intensity of pain help you decide if a child’s stomachache is serious or not!

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Most children’s stomachaches go away on their own and don’t indicate serious illnesses. It does pay to know what you’re talking about when the tummy complaints come your way, though. We’re here to help you sort it out, so you can give your child an intelligent answer, take appropriate action and keep from embarrassing yourself.

What’s a stomachache?
Strictly speaking, a stomachache is an ache of the stomach—only one organ within the human belly. However, when we say we have a stomachache, we really can mean a discomfort of any of our parts between the chest and pelvis.

The belly area includes the bladder, gallbladder, kidneys, liver, pancreas, spleen, appendix and adrenal glands. (It sounds like a variety pack from the butcher, until we realize you are talking about your child!) Your child, depending on his age, is not likely to know how problems with different organs feel, so you need to ask a lot of questions, figure out where the pain is located, make an educated guess what might be causing it and take appropriate action on his behalf.

Causes of childhood stomachaches
According to an article at MedLine Plus, pediatric stomachache causes can be divided into two categories: those that are not life threatening and those that indicate serious conditions.

Non-life-threatening stomachaches are caused by:
constipation, gas, food allergy or intolerance, heartburn or acid reflux, stomach flu or  food poisoning, strep threat or mono, colic, air swallowing, abdominal migraine, anxiety or depression.

Serious conditions that can cause stomach aches:
Appendicitis, gallstones, stomach ulcers, hernia, bowel twisting, blockage or obstruction, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis), intussusception where the bowel is pulled inward into itself, tumors and cancers, urinary tract infections, sickle cell disease crisis.

The difference between serious and not-serious stomachaches
When we’re talking about the causes of stomachaches, it’s not rocket science to know that serious stomachaches indicate malfunctioning of major organs and bodily functions. Minor stomach pain is caused by temporary conditions or mild malfunctions.

Children can’t always tell you how serious the pain is or what it feels like, so you have to do some external fact finding. If an infant draws up her legs toward her stomach when fussy, that might indicate a stomachache. Older children can probably point to where the pain is. Use the following rules of thumb to help you decide whether or not to call the doctor.

Where is the pain? Some doctors say any pain around the belly button is not likely to indicate a serious problem. Appendicitis causes pain in the lower right quadrant of the belly. Gas causes sharp twinges of pain or uncomfortable achyness in the lower belly. Serious bowel conditions radiate pain in the lower abdomen. Heartburn is above the belly button.

How long has the pain lasted? If your child experiences sudden sharp pains or acute pain that doesn’t improve in 24 hours, most sources say it’s time to seek immediate help. If dull pain lasts more than a week, it’s time to call the doctor.

What other symptoms accompany the stomach pain? Get help right away if any baby younger than three months is vomiting or has sustained diarrhea. If your child hasn’t had a bowel movement in more than 24 hours or has constipation accompanied by vomiting, get to the doctor immediately. Other serious accompanying symptoms include: a hard or distended belly, trouble breathing, tarry blood in the stool. Call the doctor to check in if there is a burning sensation with urination, diarrhea lasts more than two days, vomiting lasts more than 12 hours, your child has a fever over 100.4 degrees F, or if there is any unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite for more than two days.

For more details to help you sort out your child’s stomachache, read the full article from MedLine Plus at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007504.htm.

Explaining stomachaches to children
When you are little, it can be scary to feel any kind of pain. Even a mild stomach pain can seem like a reason to worry. Once you’ve determined whether your child’s stomachache is serious or not serious, take some time to explain to him what’s going on inside of his body Just knowing how the body works and understanding what causes a stomachache can help your baby (big or little) stay calm and think positive to promote healing of whatever condition ails him.

Kids Health offers a fantastic article kids can read about stomach pain, or they can listen to it online if they are too little to read at http://kidshealth.org/kid/ill_injure/aches/abdominal_pain.html.

The article/recording explains in terms a child can understand what can cause stomachaches and shares advice, including:

  • Don’t overeat or skip meals
  • Eat fiber-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, so bowel movements are regular
  • Drink lots of fluids, especially water
  • Wash your hands before eating to fight off germs that can cause illnesses
  • Don’t eat right before bedtime
  • Get lots of sleep, so your body doesn’t get run down
  • Let an adult know when your belly aches

What to do about a child’s stomachache
If you believe your child’s stomach discomfort could be a result of a serious condition, get her to the doc for confirmation of your diagnosis. If you believe it’s a mild stomachache with a non-serious cause, you could try natural remedies recommended by Parents.com: chamomile or ginger tea, peppermint and heat for an upset stomach, and the CRAP diet for constipation (cherries, raisins, apricots and prunes—puree for small children). See the full article, “9 All-Natural Tummy Ache Remedies,” at http://www.parents.com/health/stomach-ache/natural-tummy-ache-remedies/.

For bacterial issues, serve your child yogurt. For ongoing bacterial issues, try probotics designed especially for children, such as BioVi Probiotic Blend for Children. Yogurt and probiotics add good bacteria to the gut to get digestion working better, and regular use guards against onslaughts of bad bacteria.

The inexact science of stomachaches
As an adult, you’ve wrestled with the inexactness of medicine and the human body many times and you know it’s not always possible to know exactly what’s going on. In addition to the possible causes above, your child’s stomachache might be a result of more unique causes, such as menstrual cramps in an older girl, an injury, or simply the result of excess sinus drainage. Do what you can to reassure your child and make her comfortable, keeping an eye out for signs of anything serious.

But on the other hand your baby’s stomach pain really could be the result of something unusually serious, such as lead poisoning. So in the end, it’s important to trust your instinct and check with your doctor. If your instinct is waving red flags, go crazy with your protective overreaction and get that kid to the doctor!


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