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Tummy troubles - dealing with and avoiding them

Tummy upsets in small children are common and can be caused by all kinds of things. Most are not serious but with good habits and reading the signs of illness, you can help to stop them becoming a problem.

A tummy upset is a common complain in small children. Sometimes your child may complain of pain when they are just hungry, or they may be holding back on going to the loo which might cause them other problems. Understanding the signs of tummy trouble, encouraging good hygiene habits and dealing effectively with illnesses can make a big difference – especially as instances of diarrhoea and vomiting will automatically rule your child out of attending nursery or school usually for 48 hours.

Tummy troubles in young children

There are many reasons why your child might have a pain in their stomach.

Hunger pains – a small child may busy himself for some time before he realises he’s hungry and by then the physical need may feel very intense to him.

Toddler diarrhoea – sometimes a small child’s system just doesn’t break down food efficiently enough to produce solid stools and instead they may have a runny poo in which you can see bits of vegetable they have eaten. If they are also vomiting or experiencing a severe prolonged stomach ache, or this watery poo continues for more than two days, seek medical help, but if your child seems otherwise well, the problem is likely to pass over.

Other illnesses – problems like common urinary infections (or even something like tonsillitis) can cause tummy pain. If it is severe for some time or accompanied but a raised temperature seek medical help.

Emotional upset – some children may feel stress about something like starting school or missing a parent who is away. This may manifest itself in stomach pain or simply be their way of articulating that they are upset but don’t understand why. Consider this as a possibility and take your child’s feelings seriously.

How can you tell if it’s serious or not?

If a child complains about tummy pain but then can be distracted and does not complain again it is probably just a passing twinge. You will know your child best – one who is shouting about their pain may still be eating normally and otherwise quite active, suggesting nothing serious is wrong, but a child who goes quiet and looks fevered probably needs your attention.
If there is a history of stomach or bowel problems in your family you should discuss any concerns with your GP.
Most commonly, signs which may indicate urgent medical help is needed:

  • Raised temperature
  • Blood or mucus in any solids passed
  • Continued severe pain (especially to the right of the abdomen)
  • If there is a lot of vomiting and/or a lot of diarrhoea

Longer term, if your child regularly complains of tummy pains and is not gaining weight or actually losing weight, or seems weaker or less interested in activities, this should also be discussed with your GP.

Treating diarrhoea

  • Replace lost fluid by offering clear drinks (water or special drinks designed for this purpose available from a pharmacy). Fruit juice or squash are likely to make the problem worse.
  • Children should NOT be given the kind of medications adults might take to fight diarrhoea.
  • Let your child rest and offer light meals that won’t be demanding on the digestive system.
  • Don’t take your child to nursery or school – a problem could spread quickly to other children, and if your child has a diarrhoea accident while there it will cause him great emotional upset.

Good hygiene around tummy upsets

If anyone is unwell with diarrhoea or vomiting in your household make sure you step up your regular hygiene measures:

  • Use separate towels for the person who is unwell and don’t let children share food or cups.
  • Make sure they and you wash your hands thoroughly after visiting the loo.
  • Wash hands again before preparing food and having meals.

Encouraging a clean child

Get your child into good daily habits and you will reduce the risk of some common upsets.

  • Once your toddler no longer needs you to clean his hands get him into the habit of washing them himself after every visit to the toilet, after playing in the garden or handling a pet, and before eating.
  • It sounds silly but investing in a jolly liquid soap will make your child feel he has his own special hand-washing regime and encourage him to wash with more than just water each time.
  • Get your child to wash with warm (not too hot) water rather than just a cold splash.
  • Get toilet wipes. You may want your child to use toilet paper once he is off a potty but many children find wiping tricky and wipes can really help them do a more thorough job!
  • Instil these habits – so that he also practises these at nursery or school. Teachers do remind children too, but habits like chewing pencils other children have used, holding hands at playtime and getting messy will mean your child has to be a little more independent about cleanliness.
  • Set a good example – make sure you wash your hands regularly too.

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