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  • Posted June 19, 2023

Is Child's Tummy Pain a Serious Concern? Poll Finds Many Parents Unsure

Kids get a lot of tummy aches.

How a parent responds to it can vary, just as the causes can, according to the University of Michigan Health's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, which looked more closely at the issue.

About 1 in 6 parents said their child has tummy pain at least monthly, according to the poll, but many don't call the doctor. One-third of the parents said that they were very confident they could identify whether the belly pain was serious.

“Tummy complaints are common among children. This type of pain may be a symptom for a range of health issues, but it can be difficult to know if it's transient or a cause for concern,” said poll co-director and pediatrician Dr. Susan Woolford.

“Our poll suggests that despite benefits of seeking professional help, parents may not always consult with a doctor when determining whether belly pain is a sign of something serious and how to relieve it,” Woolford said in a Michigan Medicine news release.

The poll found that 2 in 5 five parents whose child experiences monthly belly pain have not talked to a doctor about it. Nearly one-third of parents said their child experiences belly pain a few times a year. More than half reported their child rarely or never complains of stomach issues.

Parents had varying opinions on the root causes of the pain.

About three-fourths of parents think the cause of the tummy pain is digestion or food-related, including gas, indigestion and constipation. Some think the cause is a virus or infection.

More than one-quarter of parents think worry, anxiety, trying to avoid school or hoping to get attention is behind the pain. This was a more common belief in parents of children aged 6 to 10 (34%) than those with kids aged 3 to 5 (20%).

When they believe worry or anxiety is the cause, most talk with their child about their feelings. Some help them with breathing or relaxation exercises or attempt to distract them. About 16% of parents allow their child to miss school or other activities related to their worry.

“This situation warrants parental attention as it may be a signal of important emotional health concerns for the child,” Woolford said. “Parents should give children a safe space to express their feelings and concerns, and help them identify potential stressors, such as school-related pressures, family issues or social challenges.”

While nearly one-third of parents are very likely to give an over-the-counter product when their child has belly pain, some products are less helpful than others, Woolford said.

The active ingredient in some upset stomach medications is bismuth, which slows down gut motility. This can shorten diarrhea, Woolford said, but it may slow the process of recovery from a viral infection and may trigger constipation in children.

“Parents will naturally want to help alleviate their child's pain but they should understand the pros and cons of different remedies, to make sure medicine makes it better and not worse,” Woolford advised.

To gauge the cause of their child's stomach pain, most parents have the kid describe it while less than half see if the child can continue with regular activities, has a temperature or describes improvement in pain from changing positions.

Reasons that parents would call their child's doctor or seek emergency care include blood in the stool (84%) and sharp, knife-like pain (65%). About 64% would call if the pain continued for more the six hours, 63% if the belly is swollen and 49% if the belly is hard.

“In some cases, abdominal pain is an important sign of more serious problems such as appendicitis, bowel obstructions, urinary tract infections, and for boys, testicular problems such as hernias,” Woolford said. “Many parents polled weren't confident they could recognize these situations. If a child is experiencing severe, frequent or disruptive pain, it's always best to err on the side of caution and call the doctor.”

The poll received answers from more than 1,080 U.S. parents of children aged 3 to 10.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on abdominal pain in children.

SOURCE: Michigan Medicine, news release, June 19, 2023

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