It’s common for small kids to
have stomachaches, diarrhea,
constipation or nausea. But it’s
also worrisome. “Young kids have
a limited ability to tell you what’s
going on,” says Dr. Glen Ward,
a pediatrician in White Rock,
B.C. You may not know if your
child is suffering from something
temporary, like a virus or a bad
banana, or has a chronic or more
serious problem, like celiac disease.
These questions will help you
sort out when you need medical
guidance and when the illness is
likely to run its course.
When did symptoms begin?
Has your normally healthy child
had a few days of uncomfortable
symptoms, or been plagued by
problems for months? That’ll be
your first clue, says Dr. Ward. “If it’s
an unwell child with longstanding
symptoms, that is most likely to be a
more serious illness.”
What’s going around?
Has a sickness been spreading
through the daycare? Statistically
speaking, most preschoolers with
abdominal symptoms turn out to
have a temporary viral illness.
Are there other complaints?
Besides a sore stomach, your child
may have vomiting, a fever, runny
stool or constipation. Of course,
any time you’re concerned about
your child’s symptoms, call your
doctor. But certain red flags mean
that medical help is needed quickly.
If your child is showing signs of
dehydration, if there’s blood in the
stool, or is inconsolable with pain,
seek help. “It has a lot to do with
severity,” says Dr. Ward. It’s also
worth a trip to the doctor’s office
if symptoms don’t subside after a
What’s going on in life?
Stressful events, such as starting a
new daycare, can lead to abdominal
symptoms. Toilet training is also
often linked to tummy problems,
because kids may start holding back
their bowel movements.
Have you been travelling in
another country? Camping by
the lake? Parasites can cause gas,
nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Some parasitic infections will
disappear on their own, but others
will need treatment. Again, call the
doctor if the symptoms don’t clear
up in two weeks.
A food intolerance can lead to
tummy upset (see sidebar), but so
can certain eating habits. Too much
milk may cause constipation, and
excessive juice can trigger diarrhea.
A kid who gets constipated may tend
to graze because she can’t stomach a
full meal, but snacks may be low in
fibre, making problems worse. Even
gassy foods like cabbage or beans can
cause tummy pain.
What the doc will do
Expect your child’s healthcare
professional to ask a lot of
questions. You may be asked in
detail about the consistency of your
child’s bowel movements, because
the history and physical exam will
influence what tests, if any, are done.
These might include stool and urine
samples. Blood tests, abdominal
X-rays and ultrasounds are only
occasionally used. “It’s important
that the child isn’t exposed to
unnecessary procedures,” says
Dr. Ward. “By the same token, the
evaluation has to be thorough.”
When foods fail
A food insensitivity
or allergy could
be the culprit.
gluten or lactose
are not rare in
children. But before
you start cutting out
wheat, milk or other
from your kid’s diet,
it’s critical to have
a discussion and
with a healthcare
provider. “We see
limiting their child’s
diets for a very
long time,” says
- Sherry Torkos,
a pharmacist and
health author in
Fort Erie, Ont.,
talking to a doc.
“You really need to
not stab in the dark.”
Plus, she says, if you
don’t know what’s
going on but start
like diarrhea with
you may mask
truly needs medical
- You definitely
don’t need a
doctor’s OK to
jettison the junk
from your kid’s diet,
says Sherry. “If the
child’s eating a lot
of junk foods or
too much sugar,
that can be really
hard on digestion.”
And you may
also want to give
probiotics a try,
since an imbalance
in the gut’s friendly
bacteria could be
the culprit. “There
may be a simple
solution to your
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2013.