5 Signs Your Child’s Digestive Health Needs Help

From the WebMD Archives

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?

Digestive Complaints: When Is It an Emergency?

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.

5 Signs It's Time to See a Doctor

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.

Vomiting

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

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Abdominal Pain

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:

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.

Constipation and Diarrhea

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 (Gastroesophageal Reflux)

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, Fussy Eating

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.

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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.

Other Digestive Health Problems in Kids

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

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.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 08, 2013

Sources

SOURCES:

Chris Tolcher, MD, pediatrician; clinical assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Southern California School of Medicine, West Hills, Calif.

Gerard E. Mullin, MD, associate professor of medicine; director of integrative GI nutrition services, Johns Hopkins Hospital; author The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health.

Scott Cohen, MD, pediatrician; attending physician, Cedars Sinai Medical Center; author of Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Acute Abdominal Pain in Children."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health: "Constipation in Children."

Cleveland Clinic: "Nausea and Vomiting."

American College of Gastroenterology: "Functional Abdominal Pain in Children."

Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, Stanford University School of Medicine: "Constipation," "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) / Heartburn."

Charles B. Wang Community Health Center: "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) in Infants and Children."

KidsHealth: "Gastrointestinal Infection and Diarrhea."

Case Western Reserve University: "Atypical Eating Disorders in Young Children."

Lancaster General Health: "Picky Eaters."

University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics: "Digestive Health."

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