When your tot’s tummy is upset, you want to fix the problem fast. Knowing exactly how to help can be tricky since he can’t tell you why it hurts. Find out what might be causing your baby or toddler’s bellyache and how you can help settle his stomach.
Your little one might be telling you he’s got tummy pains if he shows one or more of these signs:
- Acts fussy or grumpy
- Doesn’t sleep or eat
- Cries more than usual
- Trouble being still (squirming or tensing up muscles)
- Makes faces that show pain (squeezing eyes shut, grimacing)
Stomachaches are common for kids. Luckily, they’re not usually caused by anything serious. They can be painful, though, so it’s good to have soothing strategies on hand.
It can happen for many reasons.
Colic usually happens in babies under 3 months old. Doctors aren’t sure why babies get colic, but they think it may make the intestines tighten painfully. Your baby might have colic if he:
- Cries more in the late afternoon or evening
- Cries for at least 3 hours for 3 days a week or more for at least 3 weeks
- Pulls his legs to his chest when he cries
- Passes lots of gas
Soothing strategy: Every baby is different, but there are options you can try:
- Swaddle your baby in a blanket.
- Hold your baby and walk around or rock him.
- Use white noise as a distraction.
- Offer a pacifier.
But not all crying is colic. See a doctor if your baby is crying a lot and doesn’t seem to be better or has other symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, or not eating well.
Also, take care of yourself. The constant noise and stress of a crying baby can wear down even the most patient parent. Call on a partner or caregiver to step in when you need a break.
Gas. In babies, colic and gas often go hand and hand. Their new digestive systems are still working out the kinks as they grow. Gas can come from:
- Swallowing air
- Trouble digesting formula or certain foods
- Trouble with breast milk when mom eats certain foods
Soothing strategies: If you’re breastfeeding your baby, talk to his doctor about the foods you eat. You may be able to solve the problem by avoiding foods that seem to bother your baby. If he takes formula, ask your doctor if switching to a different kind might help.
Constipation. It can hurt when little systems back up. If all your child can get out is hard, dry bowel movements, or none at all, he’s constipated.
Some of the reasons constipation happens include:
- Holding in bowel movements
- Not eating enough fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables
- Not drinking enough water
- Changes in diet or routine
- Taking certain medications
- Milk allergies
Although it can happen in babies, it’s more common once a child starts to eat solid foods.
Keep in mind that it’s normal for babies to strain and grunt while they try to poop. It’s even OK for them to go a few days between bowel movements if they’re otherwise OK.
Soothing strategies: The best way to calm a constipated tummy is to get bowel movements moving again. There are a few ways you can help get things going:
- Give your child, depending on her age, 1 or 2 teaspoons of prune juice.
- Don't feed you baby foods that can constipate, like milk and cheese.
- Make sure your child is moving around.
- Take a break from toilet training.
Don’t give your child a laxative until you check with his doctor.
Reflux. Babies with reflux (heartburn) have a burning sensation from stomach acid coming back up their esophagus. Sometimes, infants with reflux have a digestive disorder called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Signs include:
- Refusing to eat
- Gagging or choking
- Coughing a lot, especially at night
- Frequent ear infections
- Rattling in the chest
- Vomiting or spitting up a lot
- Poor weight gain
Soothing strategies: If you are worried about reflux, see your baby's doctor. The doctor can recommend different feeding positions that keep your baby upright and help acid stay out of his esophagus. There are also medications your doctor can prescribe that take away stomach acid and make the stomach empty faster. Many infants outgrow reflux problems by age 1.
When to Call the Doctor
If your child’s stomachache comes on really quickly, or if it won’t go away, check in with the pediatrician. His doctor will especially want to know if your child has other symptoms, such as:
- Fever of 100.4 or higher
- Sore throat
- Diarrhea that lasts a few days or more
These can be signs of infections, such as:
- Strep throat, which is very uncommon in babies
- Urinary tract infection (most common in girls ages 1-5)
- E. coli
Other less common causes of stomachache include:
Appendicitis. If the pain is in the center of your child’s stomach and later moves to the right, it could mean appendix problems. It’s rare for this to happen in kids under 5.
Intestinal blockage. It’s rare, but sometimes between 8-14 months, part of your child’s intestine can slide into another part and block it. Your doctor can use X-rays to diagnose the problem. An enema or surgery will unblock it.
Parasite. Your doctor can test a sample of your child’s stool to see if a parasite is to blame. Parasites can be treated with antiparasitic medicines.