Digestive Issues in Children: 5 Signs Your Child Has a Problem Digesting Food

Sometimes your child’s stomach pains or other digestive issues are more than a one-time occurrence and can indicate a more severe problem digesting food.

Digestive health issues can cause a wide range of symptoms. Here are five signs your child has a problem digesting food and what you can do about it.

1. Abdominal Pain That Won’t Go Away

A stitch in the side from running around the backyard is one thing, but persistent abdominal pain is another.

Persistent abdominal pain could be a sign of an issue in the digestive system. It could be a symptom of is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an umbrella term for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. However, it is important to speak with your child’s pediatrician or pediatric gastroenterologist to determine what is causing your child’s pain.

If your child is diagnosed with IBD, early detection will help manage your child’s symptoms and possibly decrease the need for surgeries.

One type of IBD is Crohn’s disease — a chronic, ongoing disease that leads to inflammation in the digestive tract. It can also present with other symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss and fever.

Another type of IBD that causes abdominal pain is ulcerative colitis. This is when the immune system causes inflammation and ulcers in the large intestine. Anyone can be diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, but it is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 30. In addition to abdominal pain, it can cause diarrhea and blood in the stool.

2. Heartburn and Regurgitation

Heartburn isn’t just for adults who have eaten too much pizza. Your child can also experience heartburn, a burning, painful feeling just behind the breastbone in the middle of the chest. Your child might describe this uncomfortable sensation as moving up toward their throat.

Heartburn is a common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GER is when the contents of the stomach rise back up into the esophagus. While GER can happen occasionally, GERD is when symptoms like heartburn persist over time.

Children with GER or GERD, especially infants, may also experience regurgitation, which is when the stomach contents make it past the esophagus and into the throat or mouth. This can cause your child to taste that food or stomach acid, leading to vomiting.

Other symptoms of GER and GERD in children include nausea, abdominal or chest pain and trouble swallowing.

3. Persistent Diarrhea

Occasional diarrhea (or loose, watery stools) is normal and goes away on its own. Frequent diarrhea could be a sign of a more serious problem. It could also lead to other issues, like dehydration, weight loss and malnutrition (not having enough nutrients).

Persistent diarrhea could be an indicator of many conditions. It is important to speak with your child’s pediatrician or pediatric gastroenterologist so they can determine the cause for your child.

Persistent diarrhea is a symptom of short bowel syndrome, a group of conditions related to the inability to absorb nutrients properly. This can result from surgery, damage to the small intestine or a lack of enough movement in the intestines. Short bowel syndrome can also occur when children are born with a short small intestine or part of their bowel missing.

In addition to diarrhea, children with short bowel syndrome may experience bloating, cramping, excess gas and vomiting.

4. Skin Rashes and Breathing Problems

Your child’s immune system is always hard at work — and sometimes, it works a little too hard. If they experience skin rashes or breathing problems shortly after eating, they may have a food allergy.

Food allergies — when the body overreacts to proteins in food — occur in about one in 13 children. While any food can trigger a reaction, common food allergens include cow’s milk, peanuts, eggs, wheat, soy and tree nuts (like pecans and cashews).

Skin rashes from a food allergy can appear as itchy spots, swelling and hives (tiny red spots that resemble mosquito bites). Breathing problems include wheezing, sneezing and tightness in the throat. These symptoms can occur alongside secondary gastrointestinal issues, like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

If your child displays signs of food allergies, they may be referred to a pediatric allergy specialist and, at times, a pediatric gastroenterologist. For serious symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

5. Blood In The Stool

Blood will give any parent reason to worry. It can be an indicator of a serious problem if it’s in the stool.

Blood in the stool (which can look like red streaks in the stool or make the stool appear black) can be caused by colon polyps, which are growths on the colon or rectum. While colon polyps aren’t necessarily a problem with digestion, they can cause digestive issues, including constipation and diarrhea.

Other signs of colon polyps include:

  • Rectal bleeding, which can show up as blood in underwear or on toilet paper after a bowel movement
  • Anemia, which is not having enough iron, leading to fatigue

Colon polyps occur in 1-2% of children and generally develop in children under 10 years old. Colon polyps are not usually cancerous, but they can turn into cancer if they aren’t removed.

Blood in the stool can also be a sign of ulcerative colitis, especially if combined with abdominal pain.

Catching Signs of Digestive Issues and Gastrointestinal Issues Early

As a parent or caregiver, you’re always monitoring your child’s health and wellbeing. This is important for all aspects of their health, including gastrointestinal issues. If you have concerns about your child’s digestive health, talk to their pediatrician or make an appointment with a gastroenterologist, who can diagnose and treat your child’s digestive problems.

Catching these problems early can prevent future ones from occurring — not to mention help your child feel more comfortable during and after eating.

Do you have questions about your child’s digestive health? Contact their pediatrician or a gastroenterologist to discuss your concerns and get your child the treatment they need.


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