Alternative names: Stomach pain in children; Pain – abdomen – children; Abdominal cramps in children; Belly ache in children
Definition: Almost all children have abdominal pain at one time or another. Abdominal pain is pain in the stomach or belly area. It can be anywhere between the chest and groin.
Most of the time, it is not caused by a serious medical problem. But sometimes abdominal pain can be a sign of something serious. Learn when you should seek medical care right away for your child with abdominal pain.
When your child complains of abdominal pain, see if they can describe it to you. Here are different kinds of pain:
- Generalized pain or pain over more than half of the belly. Your child can have this kind of pain when they have a stomach virus, indigestion, gas or when they become constipated.
- Cramp-like pain is likely to be due to gas and bloating. It is often followed by diarrhea. It is usually not serious.
- Colicky pain is pain that comes in waves, usually starts and ends suddenly and is often severe.
- Localized pain is pain in only one area of the belly. Your child may be having problems with their appendix, gallbladder, a hernia (twisted bowel), ovary, testicles or stomach (ulcers).
If you have an infant or toddler, your child depends on you seeing that they are in pain. Suspect abdominal pain if your child is:
- More fussy than usual
- Drawing their legs up toward the belly
- Eating poorly
Your child could have abdominal pain for many reasons. It can be hard to know what is going on when your child has abdominal pain. Most of the time, there is nothing seriously wrong. But sometimes, it can be a sign that there is something serious and your child needs medical care.
Your child most likely is having abdominal pain from something that is not life threatening. For example, your child may have:
- Food allergy or intolerance
- Heartburn or acid reflux
- Ingesting grass or plants
- Stomach flu or food poisoning
- Strep throat or mononucleosis (“mono”)
- Air swallowing
- Abdominal migraine
- Pain caused by anxiety or depression
Your child may have something more serious if the pain does not get better in 24 hours, gets worse or gets more frequent. Abdominal pain can be a sign of:
- Accidental poisoning
- Stomach ulcer
- Hernia or other bowel twisting, blockage or obstruction
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis)
- Intussusception, caused by part of the intestine being pulled inward into itself
- Sickle cell disease crisis
- Stomach ulcer
- Swallowed foreign body, especially coins or other solid objects
- Torsion (twisting) of the testicle
- Torsion (twisting) of the ovary
- Tumor or cancer
- Urinary tract infection
Most of the time, you can use home care remedies and wait for your child to get better. If you are worried or your child’s pain is getting worse, or the pain lasts longer than 24 hours, call your health care provider.
Have your child lie quietly to see if the abdominal pain goes away.
Offer sips of water or other clear fluids.
Suggest that your child try to pass stool.
Avoid solid foods for a few hours. Then try small amounts of mild foods such as rice, applesauce or crackers.
Do not give your child foods or drinks that are irritating to the stomach. Avoid:
- Carbonated beverages
- Dairy products
- Fried or greasy foods
- High-fat foods
- Tomato products
Do not give aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or similar medicines without first asking your child’s provider.
To prevent many types of abdominal pain:
- Avoid fatty or greasy foods.
- Drink plenty of water each day.
- Eat small meals more often.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit foods that produce gas.
- Make sure that meals are well-balanced and high in fiber. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
To reduce the risk of accidental poisoning and ingestion of foreign bodies:
- Keep all cleaning supplies and hazardous materials in their original containers.
- Store these dangerous items where infants and children cannot reach them.
Do not allow infants and young children to play with objects they can easily swallow.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if the abdominal pain does not go away in 24 hours.
Seek medical help right away or call your local emergency number (such as 911) if your child:
- Is a baby younger than three months and has diarrhea or vomiting
- Is currently being treated for cancer
- Is unable to pass stool, especially if the child is also vomiting
- Is vomiting blood or has blood in the stool (especially if the blood is maroon or a dark, tarry black colour)
- Has sudden, sharp abdominal pain
- Has a rigid, hard belly
- Has had a recent injury to the abdomen
- Is having trouble breathing
Call your provider if your child has:
- Abdominal pain that lasts one week or longer, even if it comes and goes.
- Abdominal pain that does not improve in 24 hours. Call if it is getting more severe and frequent or if your child is nauseous and vomiting with it.
- A burning sensation during urination.
- Diarrhea for more than two days.
- Vomiting for more than 12 hours.
- Fever over 100.4°F (38°C).
- Poor appetite for more than two days.
- Unexplained weight loss.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Talk to the provider about the location of the pain and its time pattern. Let the provider know if there are other symptoms like fever, fatigue, general ill feeling, change in behaviour, nausea, vomiting or changes in stool.
Your provider may ask the questions about the abdominal pain:
- What part of the stomach hurts? All over? Lower or upper? Right, left, or middle? Around the navel?
- Is the pain sharp or cramping, constant or comes and goes or changes in intensity over minutes?
- Does the pain wake your child up at night?
- Has your child had similar pain in the past? How long has each episode lasted? How often has it occurred?
- Is the pain getting more severe?
- Does the pain get worse after eating or drinking? After eating greasy foods, milk products or carbonated drinks? Has your child started eating something new?
- Does the pain get better after eating or having a bowel movement?
- Does the pain get worse after stress?
- Has there been a recent injury?
- What other symptoms are occurring at the same time?
During the physical examination, the provider will test to see if the pain is in a single area (point tenderness) or whether it is spread out.
They may do some tests to check on the cause of the pain. The tests may include:
- Blood, urine, and stool tests
- CT (computerized tomography or advanced imaging) scan
- Ultrasound of the abdomen
- X-rays of the abdomen
Gala PK, Posner JC. Abdominal pain. In: Selbst SM, ed. Pediatric Emergency Medicine Secrets. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 5.
Smith KA. Abdominal pain. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 24.
Sreedharan R, Liacouras CA. Major symptoms and signs of digestive tract disorder. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 306.