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Tummy Troubles: Irritable Bowel Syndrome Common in Kids

How often do your kids get a stomachache?

IBS is a common cause of upset stomachs, constipation and diarrhea.Most kids get the occasional diarrhea, constipation and, of course, the inevitable stomach flu. But if your kids have upset stomachs a few or more times a month, they may be among the 10 percent who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

While this condition is real and uncomfortable, in many ways it’s a natural byproduct of the stresses of modern life, coupled with a sensitive digestive tract. The good news? There are some things you can try at home to limit the discomfort.

IBS Causes

“The most common reason people feel pain coming from their intestinal tract is stretching,” explains Stephen Borowitz, MD, a UVA Children’s Hospital gastroenterologist (digestive expert). “Our intestines are a series of long tubes with stuff moving through them all the time. Little pockets of gas or stool can stretch the intestines. Some people are more sensitive to that stretching than others.”

Many kids inherit a “sensitive” digestive system. The good news is, most abdominal discomfort is nothing to worry about.

Still, Borowitz encourages parents to take these upset stomachs seriously. “It’s important to know that an upset stomach doesn’t mean a child is trying to avoid school,” he says. “Many of these kids are good students and they internalize a lot of their stress. That may be one of the reasons I see more children with abdominal pain whenever there is a stressful event like an earthquake or a hurricane.”

Potty Problems: Stop Bad Habits Early 

The constipation that’s a part of IBS often starts early in life during the transition from liquid to solid foods. Toddlers who feel pain on the potty will hold it and make matters worse.

For this reason, don’t hesitate to pick up an over-the-counter stool softener or laxative. These can be used off and on for years, Borowitz says. There’s no evidence that a child will become dependent on laxatives.

In fact, he says, it’s better to overtreat and cause a little harmless diarrhea than to let a child continue to associate pain with going to the bathroom. “Toddlers are like elephants — they never forget — so it’s harder to fix the problem if it goes on for a long time.”

Treating the Pain

Borowitz also recommends making sure your kids have enough time to spend in the bathroom. “Kids are often overscheduled and simply have no time,” he said. “And most kids don’t like to have a BM at school.”

To get a smooth-running system, try:

  • Eating more frequent small meals, rather than large meals
  • Limiting greasy and fatty foods, which are harder to digest

If constipation is an issue, make sure your child:

  • Stays well hydrated
  • Gets plenty of fiber (juice and prunes are good sources)
  • Has a bowel movement at the same time every day

And if pain is still disrupting daily activities? Talk to your child’s doctor. There are many resources, even pain specialists, who can teach children effective relaxation techniques.

“With some kids, they get anxious because it hurts, and so they tighten their abdominal muscles, making the symptoms worse,” Borowitz says.

Got any tips? Tell us what you do to relieve an upset stomach.

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