When Is A Belly Ache Not Just A Belly Ache?

Carolina Cerezo, MD

Tummy or belly aches are the bread and butter of common childhood complaints. Most of the time, they’re not harmful. Common causes of stomach pains can include passing gas, eating too much, being hungry, and needing to “stool.” Being tired or upset can even trigger a belly ache. But sometimes you may not be sure if it’s normal or a more serious problem.

Routine causes

Constipation is a common culprit for abdominal pain. If a child misses one or two bowel movements, they may experience cramping, pain and gas bloat. This is easily treated with stool softeners and by increasing physical activity as well as their fluid and fiber intake. Take this quiz to learn more about constipation. 

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Assess Your Child's Belly Pain

Your child has been complaining, off and on, of a tummy ache and you aren’t sure if there is a legitimate concern, or if it’s normal.

Stress, whether physical, emotional, or mental, is also a major reason for abdominal pain in children. The general term used for pain due to stress is “functional abdominal pain.” The intestine can become oversensitive after an episode of a viral infection and a child may be sensitive to even normal passing of gas. Because the intestines are directly connected to the brain, this overreaction can occur when a child is scared, angry, or excited. Most of the time, this type of belly ache goes away and doesn’t cause harm.
More about children and stress »

When it’s more than a belly ache

Contact your doctor if your child’s belly ache is becoming more frequent and one or more of the following are present:

  • Missing out on socializing and/or sporting activities.
  • Poor appetite, poor weight gain, or weight loss.
  • Poor energy level or fatigue.
  • Change in bowel habits, such as frequent stools or diarrhea, blood in the stool, not having regular stools,or passing hard stools.
  • Missing school days.
  • Recurrent fevers.

Remember: when in doubt, your pediatrician can help figure it out. If your child is otherwise healthy and is without any of these red flags, it’s likely that their belly aches are just belly aches.

For other information about pediatric gastroenterology, nutrition, and more, visit the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Hasbro Children's Hospital online.

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