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Children's digestive problems

As any parent soon discovers, digestive problems are common in babies and children. Those that are seen most often range from colic, reflux and infections (gastroenteritis), through to food allergies and intolerances. As the intestinal tract only has a few ways to let you know when something is wrong, these different problems can cause similar symptoms, such as feeling sick, being sick, tummy ache, colicky pain, constipation, or diarrhoea.

When it comes to their child’s digestive health, parents can be unsure when to contact a doctor. You know your little ones best, so if you think they are unwell or you are worried about their symptoms, it’s wise to seek the advice of a paediatrician. It’ss especially important if your baby seems ill, very distressed, is losing weight or develops a fever or frequent, watery stools. Signs that a baby or child needs urgent medical assessment include bile-stained or projectile vomiting, or if they have blood in their stools. 

After assessing your child’s symptoms, our paediatricians can refer you to a paediatric gastroenterologist if needed.

Digestive problems in babies

The most common digestive problems in babies are colic, gastric reflux, and gastroenteritis (vomiting and diarrhoea), for which our paediatricians can provide advice on prevention and treatment.

Colic  Around one in five babies suffer from recurrent colic during the first three months of life. Babies who are breastfed are just as likely to get colic as those who are bottle-fed, and symptoms typically appear at the age of 3 - 4 weeks, usually disappearing by 4 months. The exact cause is unknown, but it’s thought that colic is linked with spasm of the intestines, increased sensitivity of nerve endings, or even a temporary lack of a certain digestive enzyme.

Signs that a baby may have colic include crying inconsolably, getting red in the face, and drawing up their legs and passing wind, which seems to ease the symptoms.

A colicky baby may be helped by:

burping them thoroughly after a feed
cradling them in your arms while you walk around and rock them to shift the wind
letting them suck on your finger, which helps to stimulate digestion 

If your baby isn’t settling, then our paediatricians can check them over and provide individual advice.

Gastric Reflux  Many babies burp and bring up a little feed after almost every meal. If it’s just a few mouthfuls of milk, it is probably just wind or a spit-up and is nothing to worry about. If your baby forcefully brings up all or most of their food, however, they may have gastric reflux.

Gastric reflux occurs when the muscular valve at the opening to the stomach does not fully squeeze shut, so stomach contents can pass back up towards the throat. If your baby is refluxing food but gaining weight and thriving, there may not be a problem but it is important to seek medical advice if a baby:

continually vomits after feeds, with or without distressed crying
cries or arches their back during or after a feed because of painful heartburn
brings up milk that is stained with blood or bile
develops bad breath with a sickly smell
wheezes, coughs or gags when feeding
regurgitates their feed when you pick them up from a lying down position, or if you keep finding sick on their sheets

Some babies have silent reflux, and may be miserable and refuse feeds due to heartburn without producing much visible vomit (as they manage to swallow their feed back down).

If you are worried that your baby may have gastric reflux, our paediatricians can provide expert advice. Sometimes, simple measures such as holding a baby in a vertical position while feeding, and for a period of time afterwards, will help. Giving less milk or formula during more frequent feeds may also solve the problem. Other measures involve prescribing a thickener to add to feeds, or a treatment to reduce stomach acidity. The good news is that, in most cases, reflux resolves before the age of one year as their tiny stomach valve develops and starts working properly.

If symptoms don’t respond to treatment, your baby may be referred to a paediatric gastroenterologist for tests to confirm the cause and severity of the problem. 

Vomiting and Diarrhoea  A young baby with vomiting or diarrhoea can quickly become dehydrated. If vomiting or diarrhoea last for more than 8 hours, or if your infant seems ill or has a temperature, our paediatricians can advise whether a special rehydrating fluid or other treatment is needed. Signs that may suggest your baby is dehydrated include:

passing little if any urine that seems dark and concentrated
having a dry mouth or dry skin that loses its elasticity
seeming poorly with little interest in what’s going on around them
the soft-spots on the skull (fontanelles) may also seem sunken

If you are worried that your baby may be dehydrated, contact a doctor straight away.

What to do for gastroenteritis in small children.

Read about rotavirus vaccination against a common cause of diarrhoea and vomiting.

Digestive problems in children

Older children, and babies, can develop food allergies or intolerances, with symptoms that include vomiting, diarrhoea and tummy cramps. If you are concerned that your baby or child has digestive problems related to a food allergy, our general paediatricians can help. After a full assessment of your baby or child’s general health, they can refer you to our paediatric allergist if needed.  

For more information on paediatric allergies click here.

Constipation  Bowel habit is not something that is commonly discussed, but normal stool frequency in children varies from an average of four motions per day during the first week of life, to two motions per day by the age of one year. By the age of four, most children have settled into their normal habit of between three stools per day to three stools per week.

Constipation means different things to different people, depending on their normal bowel habit. In general, a child who is constipated will pass hard stools which may be large and cause straining and pain. Sometimes, more liquid bowel contents can ‘overflow’ around the constipated stool, leading to soiling.

If your child has problems with constipation or soiling, our paediatricians can assess their general health and provide advice and laxative treatment which often solves the problem. If a specialist opinion is needed, they can refer your child on to a paediatric gastroenterologist.

Diagnosing digestive problems in children at The Kensington Kids Clinic, London

The Medical Chambers Kensington, London is at hand to provide specialist paediatric care. To find out more, please telephone 020 7244 4200 and we will be happy to answer your questions.