When should you be concerned about your child’s stomach pain?

  • Kids experience stomach pain for many reasons—some more serious than others.
  • Anxiety and stress can cause belly pain. That’s something to keep in mind as families continue to cope with the disruptions caused by COVID-19.
  • Learn the most common causes of abdominal pain in kids and how your child’s doctor may be able to help.

[3 MIN READ] 

“Mom, my stomach hurts!”

It’s a common refrain of childhood, one that parents are accustomed to hearing. Most of the time the pain is fleeting. A few hours of rest, perhaps a bowel movement, and all is well. But sometimes tummy trouble can mean real trouble. 

Could it be COVID?

COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind lately, so let’s address this possibility first. It’s true that children with COVID-19 may experience digestive symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea and nausea—all of which can cause abdominal pain. But those are just some symptoms associated with COVID-19, and among the less common. Others include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If your child shows any of the signs above along with their stomach pain, call your child’s doctor for advice on which symptoms to watch, and how to treat your child at home. 

Stress, anxiety and a “nervous stomach”

While risk of contracting COVID-19 is variable for everyone, it’s safe to say that almost no one is immune to pandemic-related stress and anxiety. And as you probably already know, stress and anxiety can lead to a host of physical ailments, including stomach aches, headaches and nausea. This is especially true for children who aren’t able to verbalize their feelings.

If your child has recurrent stomach aches that don’t seem connected to a medical problem, stress and anxiety may be the cause.

And there’s a lot to feel anxious about these days, from social distancing guidelines and loneliness to canceled vacation plans to disrupted school schedules. If your child has recurrent stomach aches that don’t seem connected to a medical problem, stress and anxiety may be the cause. One way you can help is by encouraging conversation about what’s on your child’s mind. 

  • Ask open-ended questions: “How do you feel like school is going so far?”
  • Listen and make sure you understand: “It sounds like you are frustrated about not being able to see your friends very often.”
  • Validate your child’s experience: “I can understand why that’s frustrating—I miss my friends, too.” 
  • Reframe their worries positively: “This is a temporary thing. Some day we won’t have to worry about all these social distancing rules (hopefully).”
  • Provide encouragement: “I’m proud of how you are handling this. We will get through it together!”

Simply talking about their fears and frustrations can make a difference for children, so be sure to encourage conversations like this regularly. The Centers for Disease Control offers a helpful resource for parents and caregivers to help them recognize signs of stress and anxiety in their children and find ways to offer support.

What else could it be? 

Kids experience abdominal pain for many other reasons beyond COVID-19 and stress. 

  • Constipation. If your child’s pain is located around the belly button or the left lower side of the abdomen, ask when they last had a bowel movement. If it’s been a few days, or if they are having pain going to the bathroom, constipation could be the reason. Keeping a bowel movement log for a week will help you identify any trends so you can discuss it with your doctor.
  • An infection. Infections in the digestive tract can cause diarrhea (runny, watery bowel movements) that make kids feel sick to their stomach. An infection someplace else in the body (the throat or ears, for example) may cause belly pain too. 
  • Food intolerance or a food allergy. One example is lactose intolerance, which prevents the body from digesting a type of sugar found in dairy products. Belly pain is a common symptom of lactose intolerance. Try keeping a food diary to track what kinds of foods your child is eating and if their stomach pain is related.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBD). Symptoms include cramping pain in the lower abdomen, along with bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
  • Overdoing it. Eating too quickly or consuming too much food or soda at once can cause abdominal pain.

Abdominal pain can be frustrating and uncomfortable, but it is rarely the sign of a life-threatening problem. One notable exception is appendicitis. If your child experiences pain that starts near the belly button and moves to the lower right side of the belly, an inflamed appendix may be to blame. Other signs of this condition include fever, vomiting and pain that gets worse and worse. 

If you think your child might have appendicitis, make a same-day appointment with your child’s doctor or go to the emergency department. If left untreated, an inflamed appendix can burst.

When to call the doctor

Abdominal pain is a common ailment, but it’s also treatable. Talk with your child’s doctor if their stomach pain:

  • Comes on quickly and is severe
  • Lasts longer than a week
  • Limits their everyday activities
  • Worsens or changes over time
  • Is accompanied by any additional symptoms

You may be able to work together to identify the cause and make changes to help your child feel better.

Adults can get stomach aches too! Learn what Providence experts have to say about what causes abdominal pain in adults and when you should consult a doctor for care. 

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Related Resources

Parents: Make time for your kids’ mental health

Work2bewell and the future of mental wellness for students

9 Signs your stomach pain isn’t normal

Coronavirus: Add upset stomach in children to symptoms

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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