Maintaining good digestive health is important at every stage of life, but it is especially important for kids. Getting proper nutrition and eating a healthy diet are critical factors in ensuring your child grows and develops properly, according to Meghana Sathe, M.D., Pediatric Gastroenterologist at Children’s Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. Good digestive health helps set your child up for success by enabling him or her to gain weight, grow taller and reach physical and mental developmental milestones.
What does normal digestive health look like for a child?
Good digestive health starts with getting the right foods at the right times. For kids, this generally means three meals and two snacks per day along with enough water to stay properly hydrated. Proper digestion also means regular bowel movements – whatever "regular" means for your own child. That can range from 2-3 times per day to just once per week, as long as it is consistent, your child is not in pain, and he or she continues to grow appropriately.
What are the most common digestive issues kids face?
Children can face a number of digestive issues that are often associated with their growth stage.
- Abdominal pain: Belly pain is a very nonspecific issue that can range from constipation to functional abdominal pain, including abdominal migraines where stress can manifest as abdominal pain. Nearly a quarter of visits to pediatric gastroenterologists are constipation-related.
- Reflux: In infants, spit up is very common, and most babies will have it to some degree. Reflux becomes a problem when your baby is not able to gain weight or absorb nutrients. In general, reflux gets worse around 4 months of age, and improves after about 6 months when infants are sitting up more.
- Diarrhea in toddlers: As young children start to experiment with new foods and drinks, they can experience diarrhea, especially if they consume sugary drinks or juice. Toddlers may also experience abdominal pain and discomfort related to potty training, which can lead to constipation.
What signs of digestive health problems do parents need to watch for?
Symptoms of digestive problems can come in several forms. If you notice these signs, contact your child's pediatrician:
- Bloody diarrhea: If there is blood in your child's diarrhea, it could be a sign of infection or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an autoimmune disease.
- Foul-smelling stool: Infections from bacteria or viruses can cause inflammation in your intestine. A symptom of these "foreign invaders" can be foul-smelling stool. In many cases, your child's body is able to take care of itself in these situations. In other cases, antibiotics maybe required to treat the infection. However, greasy, foul stool can also be an indication of malabsorption, which could point to celiac disease or cystic fibrosis.
- Bloody vomit, green vomit or persistent vomiting: The cause of your child's vomiting could be as simple as food not sitting well, or could range to cyclic vomiting syndrome or acute pancreatitis. Pay attention to the color of the vomit, if it contains food that your child has recently eaten and if there is any blood present. If vomiting is persistent (more than 1-2 days) or if the vomit is bloody or dark green, contact your child's pediatrician.
- Bloody stools and painful, less frequent bowel movements: If your child is having painful bowel movements, decreased bowel movements or blood in the stool, it may be time to see a pediatrician – especially if the symptoms have been going on for more than two weeks. This maybe a sign of constipation or even indicate the presence of a polyp.
While some digestive issues resolve themselves, others require immediate medical attention. Blood in the stool or blood in vomit can be signs of serious issues, including IBD or Helicobacter pylori-related ulcers, respectively. Similarly, vomiting dark green substances could indicate a bowel obstruction.
What can GI specialists offer to help your child?
Gastroenterologists and other specialists can help you and your child manage chronic conditions, such as Crohn's disease, a type of IBD, and cyclic vomiting syndrome. They can also help to diagnose and treat other common illnesses that have not responded to treatment, such as ongoing constipation or reflux.
Children's Health also has three GI psychologists on staff that are available to work with your child on improving the "brain-gut" connection that can cause abdominal migraines.
The highly experienced GI specialists at Children's Health can work with your pediatrician to identify, diagnose and treat digestive issues in children. Learn more about our program and services.
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