5 Signs Your Child’s Digestive Health Needs Help

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 08, 2013
4 min read

Kids can be picky or non-stop eaters -- and they'll complain about stomach pain when they’re grumpy, or not say a word when they truly feel bad.

While most kids eventually settle into predictable eating patterns and most childhood stomachaches will go as quickly as they come, some digestive problems in children can be a sign of something more serious. Do you know which red flags to watch for -- and when to call the pediatrician?

Whether your child's digestive distress involves vomiting, diarrhea, or it's simply a complaint they can't really pin down, if you're worried -- don't hesitate: Always call your pediatrician.

"Trust your instincts," advises pediatrician Chris Tolcher, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. You know your child best, so no matter what the digestive problem is, if it concerns you, contact your child's pediatrician right away.

Most digestive problems in children are mild and pass quickly. Here are five of the most common, with tips on when to pick up the phone.

Kids throw up for many different reasons. They get a viral infection, motion sick, food poisoning, fever, they cough too much, eat too much, become over-excited, nervous, or worried. They can vomit because of serious diseases such as meningitis, appendicitis, and intestinal blockages. Along with vomiting, kids may also have diarrhea, stomach pain, or fever.

When to call your doctor: Contact your pediatrician if your child has vomited more than once, there is blood or bile in the vomit, or if your child is under 6 and can’t keep liquids down. For older kids, if they have vomited more than twice in a 24-hour period, or the vomit has blood or bile, call your doctor. You should also call your doctor if there is associated fever, diarrhea, or signs of dehydration, which include:

  • Decreased urination
  • Dry lips
  • Decreased energy
  • Your child looks unwell to you

Abdominal pain in kids can be a sign of many problems, including these common complaints:

There are many other issues that can cause abdominal pain, which may also be accompanied by bloating, cramping, nausea, or general discomfort. Some less common causes of abdominal pain include:

  • Food allergies
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Appendicitis
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Pneumonia

When to call your doctor:If your child's abdominal pain "is severe, or going on for more than two weeks," talk to your pediatrician, Tolcher says.

All kinds of things can cause constipation in kids: Potty training stress, a low-fiber diet, lack of fluids or exercise, irritable bowel syndrome, poor bowel habits, diabetes, or medications. Symptoms of constipation include:

When to call your doctor: If you see blood in your child's stool, call your physician, says Scott Cohen, MD, pediatrician, and author of Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby's First Year.

You'll also want to contact your doctor if your child is not having at least one bowel movement every other day, if movements are painful, if there is blood in the stool, or more than normal pushing is needed during a bowel movement.

GERD is common in kids, especially very young children. Many things can trigger the acidic backflow of reflux, including:

When to call your doctor: Fortunately, reflux tends to get better on its own, or can be prevented by avoiding trigger foods like peppermint, chocolate, and fatty foods. Signs that GERD may be serious include:

Picky, limited eating in children should also be a red flag for parents, Tolcher tells WebMD, though such a vague symptom can be a sign of many digestive problems in children. GERD can cause kids to be fussy eaters, the smell or texture of a food can lead to picky behaviors, as can gastrointestinal infections and diarrhea.

Limited eating is also a sign of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. More common in teens and young adults, eating disorders can occur in children of any age, even as young as 5.

When to call your doctor: If your child is experiencing poor weight gain, if they vomit or gag on certain foods, if they experience heartburn or GERD when they eat, or have abdominal pain during or after meals, call your pediatrician.

There are less common issues that can cause children to have digestive problems, including:

  • Celiac disease
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Congenital bowel or liver issues
  • Pancreatitis
  • Hepatitis
  • Crohn's disease
  • Ulcerative colitis

Kids can't always explain what they're feeling, so no matter what the symptoms are, whether they're vague or mild, sudden or chronic, if you're worried about your child's digestive health, don't wait, call you doctor.