When your child suffers from stomach pain or digestive problems, it can be tough to figure out precisely what’s causing the trouble. “For some common issues, you can help your child feel better with steps you can take at home or with some advice from your pediatrician,” said Swati Kolpuru, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Banner Children’s Specialists Gastroenterology Clinic in Mesa, AZ.
“You can manage many digestive issues with a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, appropriate portion sizes and exercise,” Dr. Kolpuru said. These steps can often alleviate gassiness, upset stomach and heartburn.
Babies who are fussy or spitting up a lot might have acid reflux or sensitivity to cow’s milk. Modifying the mother’s diet can help ease symptoms in nursing babies and changing to a different formula can help in bottle-fed babies.
Constipation is common in children. If your child is constipated, encourage them to drink a lot of water and eat more fiber. A stool softener can also help.
Some digestive problems don’t have apparent symptoms, so it’s crucial to ensure your child has regular well visits with their pediatrician or primary care provider. “It’s important to monitor their growth and to have regular screenings,” Dr. Kolpuru said.
When does your child need to see a specialist?
Sometimes, though, it takes expert care to solve your child’s digestive problems. Dr. Kolpuru said it might be time to see a specialist if your child:
- Has constant abdominal pain that is not improving
- Has stomach pain that interferes with sleep, school or activities
- Has persistent diarrhea
- Is losing weight or not gaining weight
- Has difficulty swallowing
- Chokes while eating
- Has difficulty potty training or has stooling accidents
- Has persistent blood in the stool
- Has jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
If you notice these symptoms in your child, ask your child’s health care provider to recommend a pediatric gastroenterologist. “A lot of people don’t realize there are doctors who specialize in gastroenterology in children,” Dr. Kolpuru said. “Children are a unique group—they are not small adults. Managing their diseases is very different from what you may see in the adult world.”
How can a specialist help treat your child?
“Many digestive diseases in children can improve or resolve when they are diagnosed early and managed properly,” Dr. Kolpuru said. Your specialist will probably start with testing. That could be blood work, an ultrasound or an X-ray, depending on your child’s symptoms and initial evaluation.
Some children will need more in-depth testing, such as an upper endoscopy or colonoscopy. These non-surgical procedures use a flexible tube with a light and camera attached to see color images of the inside of the digestive tract. Doctors can also take small tissue samples, or biopsies, with these procedures.
Once evaluations and tests are complete, your pediatric gastroenterologist can recommend a treatment plan that can help.
Diseases and conditions that might need expert care include:
- Celiac disease (gluten intolerance)
- Encopresis (stool leakage)
- Chronic reflux or reflux with complications
- Crohn’s colitis
- Ulcerative colitis
- Feeding difficulty that requires nutrition management
- Liver diseases
- Chronic abdominal pain
- Food allergies and allergic conditions that affect the gastrointestinal tract
- Colon polyps
The bottom line
Digestive problems are common in children, and many of them will improve with a healthy diet and exercise. For more serious problems, consult a pediatric gastroenterologist who can help diagnose and treat childhood digestive conditions. If you need a referral to a specialist, Banner Health can help.
These articles can help you learn more about children’s stomach issues: