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Parents should take children’s stomach pain more seriously, poll suggests

(CNN) — One in six parents say their child complains of tummy aches at least once a month, according to a national poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at University of Michigan Health.

While 1 in 3 parents surveyed are confident that they can identify whether the belly pain is serious, parents do not always seek professional advice when these complaints become regular.

Based on 1,081 responses from parents of children ages 3 to 10, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that 2 in 5 parents who report monthly belly pain for their child have not discussed the issue with a pediatrician.

“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,” said Dr. Susan Woolford, Mott Poll codirector and Mott pediatrician.

It can be difficult to know if stomach pain is a short-term issue or cause for concern as tummy aches could be a symptom for a range of health issues, Woolford said.

Eighty-four percent of parents said they would likely contact their child’s doctor or seek emergency care if their child also had blood in the stool. About 65% of parents said they would call if the child felt a “sharp” pain like a knife, if the pain continued for more the six hours, or if the belly was swollen.

Parents should also monitor less severe symptoms of abdominal pain and their frequency, according to Dr. Anthony Porto, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. Children with irritable bowel syndrome or other functional abdominal issues can become accustomed to pain, which may affect their demeanor and mental health overall, Porto said.

Nearly 75% of parents thought their child’s belly pain was related to indigestion, constipation or food, while a smaller percentage attributed the pain to a virus or infection.

Stomach pain and anxiety

Among parents of children ages 6 to 10, trying to avoid school and getting attention were believed to be more common reasons for the pain. Parents of children in this age range also cited anxiety and worry as potential causes.

“There are more nerve endings in your belly than there are in the brain,” Porto said. “We commonly will feel jitters in our belly. That’s because of how those nerve endings in the intestines will somehow change how the gut functions. How it moves, how it compresses and all of those types of movements can cause pain whenever we’re feeling some external stressor.”

To address anxiety-related belly pain, the poll participants said they used several strategies. Most parents said they talked to their child about the cause of their anxiety; 53% said they did breathing exercises with their child; 53% also tried to distract their child; and 16% of parents allowed their child to miss school or other activities.

“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.”

Stomach pain could also be an indicator of more serious health issues, including appendicitis, bowel obstructions, urinary tract infections and testicular problems such as hernias.

“Many parents polled weren’t confident they could recognize these situations,” Woolford said. “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.”

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