As many parents know, children and stomach aches seem to go hand in hand. Stomach pain in kids can be caused by a variety of common reasons such as eating too much, needing to go to the bathroom, or anxiety or worry about an upcoming event. However, if your child complains of stomach pain frequently, it can be difficult to know the best ways to help and when to call the doctor.
Megha S. Mehta, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, explains when parents should worry about stomach pain and when a little rest and hydration is all your child may need.
What can cause stomach pain in a child?
The most common causes of stomach pain in children include:
- Infection or stomach bug
- Stress or anxiety
- Irritable bowel syndrome or functional abdominal pain
- Appendicitis (causes acute or sudden pain)
Additional stomach pain symptoms can vary based on what's causing your child's stomach to hurt, but may include cramping, diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea or vomiting. One of the most important symptoms to note is where your child is feeling pain in their stomach.
"One of the first questions we ask children is where their stomach hurts," explains Dr. Mehta. "Location of the pain can help physicians determine what is causing the pain, in addition to other characteristics such as severity of pain, when it occurs, what makes it better or worse and accompanying symptoms."
Stomach pain around the belly button
Stomach pain around or near a child's belly button is usually nothing to worry about. It's one of the most common stomach pain complaints among kids.
"Children often rub their bellies when they hurt and complain about general pain around the belly button," says Dr. Mehta. "This type of stomach pain is typically caused by stress or eating something that didn't quite agree with them."
If your child is complaining about stomach pain near the belly button, you can:
- Encourage them to lay down and rest
- Check to see if they need to poop
- Offer a glass of water
- Try distracting them by reading a book together or playing a quiet game
Stomach pain in the lower right part of the abdomen
Appendicitis is a serious medical emergency that can cause sudden, severe pain in the lower right part of your child's stomach. If your child complains of stomach pain that moves to the lower right side of the belly, watch for other symptoms of appendicitis including:
- Difficulty passing gas
- Loss of appetite
You should contact your child's pediatrician immediately if you suspect your child has appendicitis. Early diagnosis decreases risk of a ruptured appendix or serious complications.
Stomach pain on the left side of the abdomen
If your child is complaining about pain on the left side of their stomach, it could be caused by something as simple as constipation to a more severe condition like pancreatitis. Dr. Mehta reminds parents not to panic just because their child is experiencing pain.
"Most of the time, stomach pain on the left side is caused by something mild, like constipation. Rarely, it can be a sign of something more serious," she says. "Your child's pediatrician can work with you to better understand the pain and symptoms your child experiences to ensure they receive an accurate diagnosis – and more importantly, find relief."
Stomach pain in the upper abdomen
If your child is complaining about pain in their upper abdomen, they may be experiencing indigestion. Telltale signs of indigestion include:
- Pain in the middle of the upper belly
"Indigestion may be the cause, if your child complains about pain in their upper belly, especially if it happens after eating certain foods," says Dr. Mehta.
If your child has pain in the upper right side of their abdomen, this could also be a sign of gallstones. Gallstones are more common in adults than in children, but some children may be more at risk for developing gallstones including children with obesity, children with certain health conditions including sickle cell disease, and children with a family history of gallstone disease.
What can I give my child for stomach pain?
Stomach pain usually resolves itself after your child:
- Has a bowel movement
- Passes gas
- Recovers from a stomach virus
There's no specific treatment for an upset stomach, but you can help relieve your child's symptoms. Trusted home remedies for stomach pain in kids include:
- Offering plenty of clear liquids to keep your child hydrated
- Offering ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain
- Using a heating pad to ease cramps and pain
- Offering a bland diet, like crackers and soups
- Giving your child stool softeners, like MiraLAX® to ease constipation (see other ways to prevent and treat constipation in kids)
- Mixing a probiotic in your child's water, which may help stop diarrhea
When should I take my child to the doctor for stomach pain?
Stomach pain in children is usually nothing to worry about. But, if your child experiences any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment with your child's pediatrician to determine the cause of your child's pain:
- Constipation that is becoming frequent
- Recurrent stomach pain with no clear cause
- Blood in stool
- Fever and cough
- Pain when urinating
- Unexplained weight loss
- Looks or acts sick
- Pain that is waking your child up from sleep or is starting to affect their daily lives
Your child's pediatrician can help you determine if you need to seek immediate medical attention.
When to go to the ER for stomach pain in kids
If your child experiences any of the following symptoms with stomach pain, call 911 immediately or take your child to the emergency room (ER):
- Severe pain in the stomach
- Loss of consciousness, fatigue or ill appearing
- Difficulty breathing
- Blood in vomit or green-colored vomit
The Children's Health Pediatric Gastroenterology program offers specialized, compassionate care to help treat, manage and improve your child's digestive health. Our team offers minimally invasive diagnostic techniques and the latest advances in care to help your child and family feel their best. When stomach pain in kids becomes a chronic issue, our Chronic Abdominal Pain Clinic offers help and hope.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that makes a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.