5 Common Digestive Problems in Toddlers

Worried about your toddler’s digestive system problems? Learn about 5 common reasons for stomach pain in kids, and how to prevent, manage and seek treatment for your kid’s digestive system.

By Dr Shilpa Sharma

5 Common Digestive Problems in Toddlers

Food provides your toddler with nutrition which helps in her growth and development. But all the fun a healthy toddler can have gets undone when digestive problems set in.

In fact, digestive system problems like diarrhoea and constipation in children are quite common. Most of the time, they are usually relieved with close monitoring and treatment. However, there could be other causes for your kid’s upset stomach, which may need the immediate attention of a paediatrician.

Our expert explains some common stomach problems in children and suggests ways to handle them.

1. Stomach pain in toddlers

Together with newborns and infants, stomach pain in toddlers may represent hunger, fatigue, a need to use the loo, or just overexcitement, nervousness or worry. The exact cause of stomach pain, or colic, is unclear. However, one of the reasons could be gas, leading to a bloated stomach. This can cause a toddler to be irritable and grouchy.

In most cases, mild stomach pain in toddlers would not stop them from smiling or playing. They may not show any signs of distress as well. With a moderate degree of stomach pain, a toddler could grimace and frown, and his activity levels could drop. But, if a toddler is lying with legs flexed and crying, he could be experiencing a sharp stomach pain.

As a parent, you would be relieved to know that most chronic stomach pain in toddlers are functional. This means, although the pain is real, it may not indicate any disease as other symptoms like shivering in the cold or a runner’s leg cramp do.

However, stomach cramps in children should not be ignored, especially when accompanied by other symptoms like fever, vomiting, blood in the stools, waking up in the night with pain or pain with urination.

In most instances, showering a little love and attention will make your toddler feel better, but for sharp stomach pain, he should be seen by a paediatrician.

2. Acid reflux in toddlers:

It is also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux in toddlers refers to leaking of the stomach contents or acid into the oesophagus (the swallowing tube). Toddlers and older children suffering from GERD may complain of any of these symptoms:

  • generalised stomachache, around the belly button, and chest pain on occasions.
  • nausea or feeling as if they have just thrown up.
  • feeling of food coming back up and the need to re-swallow it.
  • feeling of food not moving down or getting stuck. Some children may complain of asthma-like symptoms such as cough or wheezing, which could be worsened by reflux.

Diet is an important part of managing GERD or acid reflux. The right diet can help prevent GERD, and thus toddler stomach pain, to a great extent. So, instead of seeking stomach pain medicine for kids, parents should try to avoid giving the following to prevent GERD in children:

a. Spicy, acidic or tomato-based foods, fatty foods, citrus products, apple juice (apples are fine), cola, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, chocolate and liquorice.

b. Medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen and alcohol-based products.

3. Lactose intolerance in toddlers:

Lactose is the sugar present in milk and dairy products. Lactase, a digestive enzyme produced by the small intestine, helps break down this complex sugar into two simple sugars. Deficiency or lack of lactase results in lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance in children can be present from birth or develop for a short period due to rotavirus or giardia infection. The infection causes damage to the lining of the intestine where the enzyme lactase is located. However, when the lining of the intestine returns to normal within three to four weeks, the lactose intolerance goes away.

A child suffering from lactose intolerance may complain of stomach distension and pain, frequent burping, loud bowel sounds, excess gas and diarrhoea following ingestion of lactose, and watery and explosive bowel movements. The toddler may also feel a sense of urgency with bowel movements.

To prevent stomach cramps, gas pains and digestive problems in children from lactose intolerance, alternatives to cow’s milk such as soya milk can be used. But adequate supplementation of calcium in the diet is a must along with antibiotics to treat giardia.

4. Diarrhoea in toddlers:

Toddler diarrhoea is caused by viral, bacterial or parasitic infections. Acute diarrhoea, often called acute gastroenteritis, manifests as soft and more frequent stools than normal.

Diarrhoea in toddlers mostly causes dehydration. Young children with mild dehydration can be treated with special oral rehydration solutions (ORS). Although juices, colas and sports drinks are frequently used, they are not a good substitute for ORS, and can worsen the diarrhoea. Toddler with severe diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration may require treatment in the hospital with intravenous fluids in the hospital and appropriate treatment for the cause.

5. Constipation in toddlers:

Constipation manifests as infrequent bowel movements, hard bowel movements, and difficulty in passing bowel movements or painful bowel movements. Constipation in children mostly occurs when solid foods are introduced, during toilet training, at the start of school, after the birth of a sibling, when parents are separated or divorced, on change of place or on the change in diet.

A toddler with constipation may show symptoms like crossing his legs, standing on toes, or squeezing his buttocks together to try to avoid a bowel movement. These are called retentive withholding behaviours.

Constipation may cause stomachache or pain in other parts of the abdomen, tearing of the anus or anal fissure, blood in the bowel movements, soiling of the underwear with stool, difficulty in walking, and decreased appetite and activity level.

Constipation in children can be treated through education, behaviour modification, diet modification and non-habit forming medications. Eating high-fibre foods, which include bran, apricots, apples, pears, melons, asparagus, beans, broccoli, carrots, beets, cauliflower, cereals, breads and pasta, are also useful. Increasing a patient’s physical activity also helps in promoting regular bowel movements and decreasing constipation.

Also read: What Is Celiac Disease? Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

About the expert:

Written by Dr Shilpa Sharma on 26 April 2017; updated on 26 September 2019

Dr Shilpa Sharma is a Homeopathic Consultant.

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