What's Causing Your Child's Tummy Ache? (and how to help!)

Nobody likes it when their child says, "I've got a tummy ache".

Tummy aches are nebulous.  They often come on out of the blue.  Rarely can a child describe what it feels like or what caused it.

Never fear, there are ways to help.

For starters, it's important to know that digestive upsets, including tummyaches, are very common complaints in children.




The big causes include...

1.  Constipation.

2.  Dietary (more on this below, includes food allergies and food intolerances)

3.  Anxiety.

4.  "Kiddy IBS" (which often has a component of anxiety-whether it be school, bullying, dating, etc.)

5.  Reflux

6.  Infections

7.  More rare conditions such as celiac disease, Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis), Eosinophilic Gastroenteritis and other conditions.

My basic approach to the child with a tummy ache is to talk with the child and their parents to learn more about how severe it is and how long it has been going on.

1.  How long has it been happening?

2.  Is it associated with certain meals?

3.  Is it associated with certain social situations?

4.  Is anyone else in the house sick?

5.  Does anyone in the family have digestive problems?

6.  Are there any worrisome features such as long-standing diarrhea, blood in the stool, weight loss, failure to grow properly.

Depending on where these questions take me, I may simply recommend a dietary approach such as...

1.  Daily probiotics (yogurts, chocolates with probiotics, etc)

2.  Peppermint oil (peppermint tea, diluted oil (one drop in 8 oz of water), peppermint tummydrops (if the child is old enough they can suck on these, otherwise you can dissolve 2 in 4 oz of hot water).

3.  Keep a food diary and avoid foods that are triggers.

4.  More soluble fiber in the diet (such as oats) with plenty of fluids.  Some very popular fibers are actually a source of tummyaches themselves as they are highly fermentable in your colon (meaning, they cause lots of gas!), I do my best to avoid these.

  • If constipation is a problem, nothing works like Miralax (it didn't get that name Miracle Laxative for no reason).
  • If the child is very gassy, I often check for fructose intolerance.  It was recently reported to be one of the leading causes of childhood abdominal pain.

+When a child has this condition, they can not properly "handle" the fructose (the fruit sugar, in many foods from fruits to honey to that often dreaded high-fructose corn syrup).

+It can be checked with a very simple test called a fructose breath test (good news, no needles needed for this).

  • Or, if a child has concerning symptoms or symptoms that don't improve, I may need to perform more invasive testing such as upper endoscopy and colonoscopy.

The bottom line is that childhood tummyaches are very common and often have no obvious cause.  Fortunately, they usually get better on their own, or with special, simple dietary measures.


As always, make sure to discuss your child's tummyaches with your doctor.


Dustin James MD

Board-Certified Gastroenterologist

Author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Digestive Health

Reading, sharing, or other utilization of this article does not establish a doctor patient relationship with the article’s author.  As always, be sure to consult with your physician regarding your health related issues.