Gastrointestinal problems in toddlers range from short-term illnesses, such as gastroenteritis and food poisoning, to food sensitivities and long-term conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. As gastrointestinal issues, these health conditions all have a common feature: They affect your child’s digestive system, which includes her stomach and intestines. They also typically share a common set of specific symptoms that parents can learn to watch for.
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Sudden, gradual or severe changes in bowel habits are hallmark symptoms of gastrointestinal problems in toddlers and babies. The most obvious change that occurs is a shift in the consistency of bowel movements. The appearance of loose, watery stool or diarrhea occurs with multiple gastrointestinal problems, including both bacterial and viral gastroenteritis. Similarly, pebbly, hard bowel movements often point to constipation, another common gastrointestinal problem in toddlers. Persistent changes in the frequency and color of bowel movements may also indicate potential problems, especially when coupled with changes in the consistency of the stool.
Stomach pain and abdominal cramping commonly develop with many pediatric gastrointestinal disorders. Depending on the cause of the symptoms, these cramps could develop alone or in conjunction with more obvious digestive symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting. Your toddler might grab at his stomach as the cramps hit, which often occur cyclically, such as right after a meal or snack. Bloating and excessive flatulence could also point to a gastrointestinal problem.
Many toddlers can’t communicate effectively verbally, so be prepared to interpret behavioral signs that may accompany gastrointestinal problems. A toddler afflicted with a digestive problem often will refuse to eat or drink, sometimes shaking her head or crying if you ask her more than once. A normally active toddler may instead opt to sit still on a couch or the floor, sometimes holding her stomach or acting preoccupied. Others may be extremely fussy and irritable. As a rule, these changes in behavior tend to occur in conjunction with other, more obvious symptoms such as bowel movement issues or stomach pain.
Gastrointestinal problems are quite common among toddlers, so it’s important that parents be able to recognize possible signs promptly so they can seek diagnosis and treatment. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you notice ongoing signs or symptoms of gastrointestinal issues, especially repeated or prolonged bouts of diarrhea or vomiting, which may cause potentially life-threatening dehydration. He’ll conduct a physical examination and may request additional testing or refer you to a pediatric gastroenterologist, depending on the symptoms and severity of the condition.