Posted on 26 Jul 2017
This content has been clinically reviewed by Cara Bradberry, MSN, RN, CPNP-PC, CPN.
Every child has a tummy ache now and then, and if your child is older than 5 or 6, she can usually tell you where it hurts and how she feels.
But if your baby or toddler is dealing with stomach or gastrointestinal issues, it can be tough figuring out the cause on your own. Maybe your baby seems unusually fussy. He or she could also be experiencing other distressing issues like gas, reflux, vomiting or diarrhea.
Symptoms like these could indicate that it may be time to call your pediatrician for advice.
When to take your child to the doctor
In some cases, stomach pain can be a sign of a more serious condition. You should call your pediatrician or go to an emergency room if your child:
- Is younger than 1 and shows signs of stomach pain
- Has stomach pain that persists for more than five days, even if it comes and goes
- Has a fever of 100.4°F or higher, accompanied by stomach pain
- Has blood in his stool or vomit
- Has signs of dehydration, including dry lips, decreased urine and pale skin
- Has pain with urination
- Wakes up in the night with stomach pain
- Has a headache, sore neck or rash in addition to stomach pain (this could be a sign of meningitis, a potentially fatal disease)
Common causes of tummy troubles
If your baby is crying and has his legs pulled up toward his abdomen, he may have gas.
You can help get rid of gas by laying your baby flat on his back and moving his legs in a bicycling motion. Rolling him over onto his tummy may also help.
Also, be aware that air bubbles can get into powdered formula when you mix it up, resulting in more swallowed air and potentially more gas. You may want to consider holding off on powdered formula and using concentrated or ready-to-feed formula instead during the early phases of feeding to help reduce uncomfortable symptoms.
Choosing bottles designed specifically to keep babies from swallowing extra air while drinking can also help. And don’t forget to burp your baby—often.
If nothing else at home seems to offer your baby relief, consider talking with your pediatrician.
Many infants strain to have a bowel movement, but if your baby stains for more than 10 minutes without success, he may be constipated.
Some other indications of constipation include:
- Fussy baby
- Spitting up more than usual
- Dramatically more or fewer bowel movements
- Unusually hard stools that may contain blood
Remember to always keep your baby hydrated. Based on your child’s age and recommendations from your child’s pediatrician, providing enough breastmilk, formula, and/or water can help reduce or alleviative constipation. Also, once your baby has started eating solid foods, make sure to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables. Check with your pediatrician before offering apple or pear juice.
Quick note: You may have heard that corn syrup is good for constipation, but experts don’t recommend this. Instead, speak with your child’s pediatrician about potential over-the-counter medications.
When your child gets a stomach bug, it's important to keep him hydrated. Most stomach bugs start with vomiting and diarrhea, which can quickly cause dehydration.
Gastroesophageal reflux (GER)
If your baby vomits after you feed him and often gets fussy, he may have GER. This can happen because the muscle that connects the esophagus to the stomach relaxes at the wrong time or doesn’t properly close. Most babies outgrow GER by the time they’re 1 or 2 years old.
Treatment depends on the severity and the symptoms. Doctors sometimes suggest thickening your baby’s feeds. Check with your pediatrician first though, before adding extra powdered, oat or rice formula to your baby’s formula or breast milk.
Also, make sure your baby is in a vertical position (seated or held upright) during feedings, and keep him upright for at least 30 minutes after feeding to reduce reflux symptoms.
For older kids, avoid foods and drinks that trigger GER symptoms, including:
- Citrus fruits
- Caffeinated food and drinks
- Fatty and fried foods
- Garlic and onions
- Spicy foods
- Tomato-based foods and sauces
Your doctor may also recommend raising the head of your child’s bed 6 to 8 inches to minimize reflux that happens at night.
If these measures don’t work, talk to your pediatrician about medications.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome—sometimes called a “nervous stomach”—can cause cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea, flatulence and constipation. It tends to run in families and, while it can be uncomfortable, it doesn’t cause serious health problems.
Kids with IBS may be more sensitive to belly pain, discomfort and fullness than kids who don’t have it.
For some children, certain foods—like milk, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, gassy and fatty foods—tend to trigger IBS. Others might have triggers related to stress and emotional upsets. For these kids, symptoms get worse with things taking tests, family problems, moving to a new home and even going on vacation.
Talk to your pediatrician if you think your child might have IBS. Some things can reduce IBS, including:
- Avoiding trigger foods
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals
- Regular exercise
- Managing stressful situations
How to treat a general upset tummy at home
When your child gets a stomach bug, it’s important to keep him hydrated. Most stomach bugs start with vomiting and diarrhea, which can quickly cause dehydration.
Offer low-sugar, electrolyte-based drinks such as Pedialyte. Offer foods that are easy to digest, avoiding fried foods, heavy sauce-based foods or foods high in sugar.
Don’t give your child over-the-counter remedies for vomiting or diarrhea; these have the potential for negative side effects. It’s always best to check with your pediatrician before giving your child any medication for vomiting.
Also, if your child has persistent vomiting, decreased urine output, pale skin, or seems more sleepy than usual, call your doctor or head to the emergency room.
Try giving your child a little bit of fluid at a time, even if the fluids come right back up.
Finally, stomach bugs are contagious, so be sure to wash hands often.
This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.