Tummy talk: Treating stomach aches and pains


Stomach aches and pains

It’s the same morning ritual. You rush around to get your child dressed, make her breakfast and try to get her off to school on time.

But one morning, your daughter refuses to eat her breakfast and complains that her tummy hurts. Is it something she ate? Constipation?

Stomach aches are very common. Almost 25 percent of school age kids complain of intermittent (on and off) stomach pain that lasts more than two months.

Rest assured, while stomach pain can happen for any number of reasons, the discomfort is usually short term, and children continue to maintain their overall good health.

“Often, a stomach ache is not cause for concern,” says Dr. Lori Zimmerman, a gastroenterologist with Boston Children’s Hospital Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. “More often, it might mean a child is constipated or withholding her stool, is sensitive to a certain food (possibly lactose intolerance), is too hungry or too full or is worried and feeling the stress in her stomach.”

Dr. Zimmerman offers the following tips and home remedies to help alleviate stomach pain and discomfort.

Watch Dr. Zimmerman’s caregiver video

Tummy ache checklist

If your child is experiencing abdominal pain and able to describe the discomfort, ask her the following questions:

  • Is the pain located throughout the belly area or consuming at least half of the stomach? If so, this form of pain and discomfort is typically attributed to a stomach virus, indigestion, gas or constipation.
  • Is the pain causing cramping and/or bloating, and followed by diarrhea? This type of stomach ache is typically from a stomach virus or a sign of poor carbohydrate absorption (like in lactose intolerance). If it lasts for more than two weeks, it should be evaluated.
  • Is the pain localized to one spot in the belly and severe? This type of pain may be associated with inflammation in an organ, such as your child’s appendix, pancreas or gallbladder, or it may be the result of stomach ulcers.

Does my toddler have a stomach ache?

For infants and toddlers who cannot verbalize their discomfort, here are some signs your child has a tummy ache:

  • increased fussiness
  • poor eating
  • gassiness
  • spitting up more than usual
  • more upset after eating or with stooling
  • pulling her legs up toward the belly

Tips_stomach ache

Tips to soothe common stomach aches and pains

Most of the time, home remedies will alleviate or eliminate a common tummy ache. Here are some tips to help reduce your child’s discomfort caused by a stomach pain:

DO’s

  • Have your child relax quietly to see if the abdominal pain goes away.
  • Offer sips of water or other clear fluids.
  • Avoid solid food for a few hours. Then try small amounts of mild foods such as rice, applesauce or crackers.
  • Suggest that your child try to pass stool.

“If your child complains of a stomach ache, pay attention to her bowel movements — if she hasn’t gone for a while or the pain is crampy, you can have her sit on the toilet,” Zimmerman says. “To help with constipation, be sure your child is staying hydrated and try to increase the ‘P’ fruits — like pears, prunes, plums. These will help your child to go to the bathroom.”

DON’Ts

Do not give your child foods or drinks that may irritate the stomach including:

  • caffeine
  • carbonated beverages
  • citrus
  • dairy products
  • fried or greasy foods
  • high-fat foods
  • tomato products

DO NOT give aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or similar medicines without first asking your child’s health care provider.

When looking to soothe a child with a stomach ache, Zimmerman suggests using distraction techniques. “Reading to your child or creating other distractions may help pass the time,” she says.

When to call your pediatrician

If your child’s pain is getting worse, or the pain lasts longer than 24 hours, call your pediatrician and make an appointment.

“A child that complains for more than a couple of weeks — especially if she has red flags like weight loss, blood in the stool, a lot of vomiting or diarrhea, unexplained fever or can pinpoint with one finger the exact source of pain — should by seen by a pediatrician,” Zimmerman urges.

Download Boston Children’s e-book, “When is a tummy ache not just a tummy ache?”a guide to managing stomach pain and other gastrointestinal conditions.