Tummy Aches in Children

Although tummy aches are a common complaint in children – the reason for five to 10 per cent of all visits to a doctor or emergency facility – they seldom turn out to be a cause for serious concern. Most of the time, tummy pains are caused by a viral infection and disappear in a couple of days. However, if your child complains of stomach pain every day, it may be a sign of something more serious. Check out the following common causes for stomach pain in children to find out when to take a visit to your child’s GP.

Look for the Signs

Every child will experience a tummy ache from time to time. They’re a completely normal part of toddler life. There are some signs, however, that you should bring to your healthcare provider's attention to help work things out. Oddly enough, severity of pain is not necessarily the most important issue. Gas trapped in a loop of bowel may cause sudden, inconsolable screaming in a child who writhes on the floor but has no fever, does not vomit and recovers by relaxing in a warm bath. Worrisome signs that may be more serious problems:

  • A pattern of increasing pain over several hours that makes the child reluctant to stand up straight, let you touch their tummy or move;

  • Abdominal pain associated with high fever;

  • Vomiting, especially of brown, green or yellow material, or blood;

  • A distended abdomen: one that is tense and swollen, protruding more than normal for your toddler;

  • Pain with urination;

  • Blood or pus in urine or dark brown urine, and

  • Blood, darkened stools that look like currant jelly, or pus in the stool.

If your child has any of the symptoms above you should bring them to your healthcare provider's attention immediately.

You can also try to determine whether the pain is generalised, localised or cramp-like. Generalised pain is common in cases of indigestion, gas, constipation, or a stomach virus. Whereas localised pain may occur if there are issues with your child’s appendix, gallbladder, ovaries, and testicles, or indicate a hernia or stomach ulcer. On the other hand, cramp-like pain is commonly caused by gas and is commonly followed by diarrhoea.

Other signs that your child is experiencing stomach pain can include fussiness, loss of appetite and drawing their legs up towards their belly.

In Summary

The kind of pain your child experiences may offer clues as to what is going on inside. Generalised pain often indicates digestive issues and viruses, whereas localised pain usually indicates an issue in a specific area. Cramp-like pain may be attributed to gas and bloating, and may be followed by diarrhoea. If your child exhibits any of the more worrisome signs listed above, please get in touch with your GP to find out the cause behind the pain.

Possible Causes of Tummy Pain in Children

As previously mentioned, tummy pain is entirely normal in children and usually nothing to worry about. To put your mind at east, read the following overview of the most common causes of tummy pain in toddlers with tips to help you know when it may be something serious and requires medical attention.

Constipation

Constipation is one of the most common reasons behind tummy aches in children. When constipated, toddlers may have infrequent bowel movements or hard, dry stools. If this happens on a regular basis or when potty training, it may indicate that your child’s diet needs adjusting.

It’s important to make sure your child is getting enough fibre in their diet and drinking enough fluids to keep things moving. Be sure to give your child plenty of fruits and vegetables along with whole grain foods and lots of liquids.

If your child starts potty training too early or feels under pressure during the process, they may rebel and hold their bowel movements. Or, your child may end up feeling nervous about the toilet, especially in public toilets, and withhold going.

Over time with your encouragement, your little one will start to enjoy a variety of fibre-rich foods and get the hang of using the toilet. Constipation may also result from other factors:

  • Changes in routine that cause stress (travel, moving, starting at a new nursery or preschool, etc.)

  • Medications

  • Milk allergies or food sensitivities

  • Underlying health conditions like metabolic disorders (rare)

If your toddler is constipated for more than two weeks, or if they complain about pain on a daily basis, have blood in their stool, have a fever and/or loss of appetite, you should contact your child’s GP to get to the bottom of the issue.

In Summary

There’s a high chance that if your child’s tummy is aching, constipation may be to blame. Constipation typically occurs when potty training and if your child’s diet lacks fibre or enough fluids. Other causes of constipation include stress, food allergies, medications and underlying health conditions.

 

Food Allergies and Intolerances

Just like adults, children can also experience tummy upsets as a result of food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. Foods most likely to trigger an allergic reaction in children are:

  • Cow’s milk

  • Eggs

  • Foods that contain gluten, including wheat, barley and rye

  • Nuts and peanuts

  • Seeds

  • Soya

  • Shellfish

  • Fish

If your little one experiences allergies, intolerances or sensitivities to certain foods, they may experience tummy pain, including gas, bloating, indigestion and diarrhoea .

Keep in mind that there is a difference between food intolerances or sensitivities and food allergies. The former won’t trigger an immune response but may still give your little one an upset tummy. On the other hand, allergic reactions may produce other symptoms accompanying a tummy ache. These include sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, red, itchy and watery eyes, wheezing and coughing, a red, itchy rash and exacerbated eczema or asthma symptoms.

Speak to your child’s GP if you have any concerns about food allergies or if your toddler keeps experiencing tummy pain after eating certain foods. If your child shows any serious symptoms of a food allergy, like swelling, trouble breathing or loss of consciousness, call 999 or go to A&E right away!

Stomach Flu or Food Poisoning

One reason your child may have an upset tummy is ‘stomach flu’, i.e. viral gastroenteritis. Stomach flu usually causes diarrhoea and may lead to vomiting. Food poisoning symptoms are typically the same. Fortunately, symptoms usually cease after 48 hours and your little one should be back on their feet as soon as possible. Vomiting may last 24 hours or more if your child has stomach flu but should end within 12 hours if food poisoning is to blame. Contact your child’s GP if symptoms don’t let up or if your toddler has bloody stool, a pounding heartbeat, or diarrhoea accompanied by a high fever. As these symptoms can cause dehydration, it’s important to make sure your child gets enough fluids.

Tonsillitis or Glandular Fever

It may surprise you to learn that tonsillitis can sometimes occur not with throat pain, but with a fever and tummy pain. Sometimes a child thought to have appendicitis has actually been diagnosed with tonsillitis instead.

In the case of glandular fever, your child will probably exhibit similar symptoms to tonsillitis, including an upset tummy. The pain from glandular fever is typically localised, so ask your toddler where it hurts. If your child points to the left side of their abdomen, this could be the result of a swollen liver or spleen induced by glandular fever.

While glandular fever can be highly unpleasant for your little one, most of the symptoms should pass within 2 weeks. Lots of rest and fluids are key. If you have reason to suspect your child may have glandular fever, it’s best to get in touch with their GP. They may recommend limiting activity and play until your child’s tummy ache subsides.

 

In Summary

Your child may experience tummy pain due to certain food allergies, food poisoning, the stomach flu or other viral illnesses. Sometimes, tummy aches can even be attributed to seemingly unrelated illnesses, like tonsillitis or glandular fever. Your child’s GP will be able to help you navigate these illnesses and get rid of your toddler’s tummy woes.

 

Stress and Anxiety

Sometimes, tummy aches and pains can be triggered by stress and anxiety. This can happen to both adults and children. If your child is battling tummy pain yet doesn’t exhibit any other symptoms like cramping, diarrhoea, vomiting, or other signs of infection, it may be worth taking a look at what is going on in their life. Your little one may experience stress when

  • A family member is sick

  • Parents and guardians are fighting

  • They’re having a hard time at nursery or school

  • They’re feeling anxious or worried about something

Often, it can be helpful to sit down and talk to your child. Ask them what’s on their mind, perhaps using a toy or acting out feelings with a game. Your GP may suggest a number of ways you can reduce and manage stress, including dietary changes, getting more sleep, increasing the amount of time playing and doing physical activity, and doing more fun things as a family.

Appendicitis

Luckily, appendicitis is a very rare phenomenon in children under 3 years and rarely occurs in children under 5 years. That being said, it’s always good to be aware of the symptoms. If your child has a mild fever and tummy pain, these may be the first signs of appendicitis. It may seem like a minor tummy ache at first, but over time appendicitis can result in worsening pain in the lower right side of the body.

If your child experiences tummy pain that’s getting increasingly worse, contact a GP or your local out-of-hours service immediately. If the pain eases then gets worse, this may be a sign your little one’s appendix has burst, which can lead to life-threatening conditions. Call 999 right away in this case to get an ambulance.

Henoch-Schonlein Purpura

Abdominal pain accompanied by a rash on the buttocks and/or legs that resembles bruising can be caused by a condition called Henoch-Schonlein Purpura. You may never have heard of it, but it is surprisingly common. Nobody knows for sure what causes this condition, but it seems to be related to a bacterial or viral infection. Inflammation of the small blood vessels can lead to bleeding in the skin as well as the bowel and kidneys. While it's not life threatening, your GP will want to watch your child carefully over the course of a few days.

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Home Remedies for Tummy Pain in Children

While some reasons behind your toddler’s upset tummy may result in a call to their GP, there are a number of things you can do for less serious symptoms from the comfort of your own home. Your GP may advise the following strategies and home remedies for tummy pain:

 

Possible causeHome remedies
Constipation
  • Eating fibre-rich foods
  • Drinking plenty of fluids 
  • Exercise and physical activity
  • A consistent toilet routine.
Food intolerances
  • Avoiding certain foods (greasy or high-fat foods, dairy, carbonated beverages)
  • Switching to plant-based or lactose-free milk (if your child has lactose intolerance).
Stomach flu or food poisoning
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Drinking small amounts of liquids throughout the day
  • Avoiding sugary or carbonated beverages (which can make diarrhoea worse)
  • Eating plain foods (like cereals, breads, apples, and yogurt).
Tonsillitis or glandular
  • Drinking plenty of liquids (but avoiding citrus and acidic beverages)
  • Eating warm soup
  • Resting
  • Gargling with warm water and salt.
Stress and anxiety
  • Better sleep
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising and playing
  • Leisure activities that are fun.

 

When to Contact Your Child’s GP

We have already addressed some instances when you should contact your child’s GP or call 999. However, there are many other reasons children may experience tummy pain, and there a number of various signs and symptoms, some of which require more urgent action than others. Call 999 or go to A&E if your child has a tummy ache and

  • They’re vomiting blood or their vomit looks like ground coffee

  • Their poo is bloody or black and sticky and extremely smelly

  • They cannot pee

  • They cannot poo or fart

  • They are struggling to breathe

  • They have chest pain

  • They have collapsed

Other signs may instead require a trip and regular consultation with your child’s GP, these include

  • The pain gets much worse quickly

  • The pain or bloating will not go away or keeps coming back

  • They have stomach pain and problems with swallowing food

  • They’re losing weight

  • They suddenly pee more often or less often

  • Peeing is suddenly painful

  • Their diarrhoea does not go away after a few days

In Summary

There are a number of reasons your child may be experiencing tummy pain, the majority of which are not serious. However, if your little one exhibits any of the above symptoms, you should call 999 or visit your GP as soon as possible!

 

FAQs at a Glance

  • Most of the time, the tummy pain your child is experience is normal and not a cause for concern. However, there are some symptoms that should prompt you to seek emergency medical attention. They include

    • severe or sharp stomach pain
    • trouble breathing
    • blood in the stool or vomit
    • dark, tar-like stool
    • vomiting but no bowel movements.
  • Treatment differs depending on the reason behind your child’s tummy ache. For example, if your toddler’s tummy pain is caused by lactose intolerance, eliminating milk may help. Always consult your GP first to find out the cause behind the upset tummy and the best approach for your child.

  • Many things cause stomach pains in kids. The most common cause of toddler tummy aches is constipation, but your child might also have a food allergy or sensitivity, the stomach flu, or be experiencing stress. Contact your child’s GP if you have any concerns or questions.

The Bottom Line

Most children experience tummy aches from time to time, and they are usually nothing to worry about. The most common reason for tummy pain is constipation. In fact, it’s a standard source of tummy aches in kids of all ages, and rarely cause for concern. You can help alleviate constipation by giving your little on plenty of fluids, keeping them active and making sure their diet is full of fibre-rich foods. However, there are other reasons why your little one’s tummy may be a little upset. Sometimes the stomach flu, stress or even tonsillitis may be to blame. Check in with your child’s GP if the tummy pain persists or gets worse, or if your child exhibits any of the more serious symptoms listed above. Tummy aches and stomach pain may be inconvenient, but with plenty of rest and fluids, they’ll soon be over. Check out of articles on toddler development to find out more about what you can expect as your toddler grows and develops.

How We Wrote This Article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.