15 Common Causes Of Stomach Pain In Babies

Stomach Pain In Infants

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Alice is an adorable nine-month-old girl. Her doting parents make sure their daughter has regular health checkups, eats homemade food, and drinks breastmilk. Therefore, it came as a rude shock to them when one day Alice woke up writhing in stomach pain. It left her parents perplexed about the reason behind their daughter’s ailment. What may have caused this?

Almost every parent faces this situation because tummy ache is that common in babies. But why do babies get this problem when parents take every care to keep the little ones safe? MomJunction reveals the causes of stomach pain in babies and how you can deal with the situation.

What Causes Stomach Pain In Babies?

There are numerous reasons for infant stomach ache ranging from infection to injury. Following are the causes:

1. Stomach or intestinal infection:

A host of bacteria and viruses cause stomach pain but here the most likely ones:

  • Rotavirus: It is the leading cause of intestinal gastroenteritis among infants (1). Infection of this virus causes an acute stomach pain along with diarrhea and vomiting. It can even lead to severe dehydration, and the little one may appear fatigued all the time. Babies older than six months can contract this virus from contaminated food, while in breastfed babies it can happen due to accidental oral contact of contaminated objects. It can even affect newborn babies.

Rotavirus infection is the leading cause of infant mortality in the world despite being avoidable through immunization (2).

  • Salmonella: It is a strain of bacteria that infects stomach and intestine, eventually causing tummy ache (3). It primarily spreads through the consumption of contaminated food and water and if the infant comes into contact with contaminated surfaces. Maintaining good hygiene will help prevent the infection.

[ Read: Salmonella Poisoning In Babies ]

  • Streptococcus: Strep bacteria targets the throat, but 10% of streptococcus infections also affect the stomach (4). Staying in close contact with an infected person can easily transmit the disease (5). So if you have a sore throat, refrain from cuddling with your baby and wear a mask to prevent accidental transmission to your little one.
  • Adenovirus: This virus inflames the intestinal walls causing intense stomach pain. It propagates through contaminated food or if the baby puts a contaminated object in his mouth, which babies do quite regularly. Adenovirus is robust and can survive on objects for an extended period. It can also transmit through the expulsion of respiratory secretions during coughing and sneezing. It is, for this reason, one of the most widely reported causes for stomach infection in child-care centers where babies play with common toys and come in close contact with other infants (6). Keeping the infant away from contaminated surfaces and objects is the best path to prevention. Parents and caregivers must wash hands regularly, and the baby’s toys cleaned periodically.
  • Infant botulism: Botulism is the infection of the intestine by the bacteria called clostridium botulinum, which the baby acquires by ingesting food contaminated with the spores of the bacteria. These spores affect the babies as they have underdeveloped natural gut flora. Stomach cramps are among the several symptoms of this condition (7).Treatment involves injecting antitoxins and putting the baby on a ventilator until he is free of botulinum toxin.
  • Parasitic infection: This is most likely to occur in babies who are on solid foods. Parasitic infection is essentially the infestation of the gastrointestinal tract by parasitic single or multicellular organisms. Giardia lamblia is one such parasitic organism that can affect babies through untreated water and contaminated food (8).

Many of the above problems affect adults and can be easily transmitted from parents to babies. Since babies have a developing immune system, they can be more susceptible to the adverse effects of the microorganisms. But do not fret since these infections are easily preventable through proper precaution and scheduled immunization.

2. Colic:

Repeated bouts of colic can cause sudden fluttering of the intestinal muscles, invariably leading to stomach aches. Note that this is a normal colicky behavior, where the baby cries for generic reasons such as frustration. The long bouts of the crying contract the diaphragm and mount pressure on the intestines, subsequently causing stomach pain.

Treatment: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends general pacifying techniques such as rocking the infant, taking the baby outdoors in a stroller, or swaddling in a warm blanket, to calm him.

[ Read: Colic In Babies ]

3. Food intolerance or allergy:

Food allergy is when the immune system over-reacts to an external protein by mounting an immune system attack. Food intolerance is when the digestive system is unable to digest certain food compounds, causing discomfort. Both cases result in stomach aches, among other problems (9). This situation is more likely to affect weaning babies, who are trying out new solid foods. Breastfed babies may also show food allergy/intolerance when they are introduced to formula.

Treatment: Food allergies do not have a cure, and the best solution is to keep the babies away from allergenic foods. Food intolerance is less severe and usually genetically determined. Also, a baby may not display intolerance to a particular food item when mixed with multiple ingredients. An infant can eventually outgrow the intolerance, but until then it is good to keep him away from the allergic foods.

4. Gastroesophageal reflux:

Gastroesophageal reflux is a condition where the contents of the stomach move upwards through the lower esophageal sphincter, which is under-developed in babies. This muscle marks the intersection between esophagus and stomach. When the stomach acid, along with semi-digested food, gets into the esophagus, it causes irritation. The baby gags and vomits, while also having a stomach ache (10).

Treatment: The condition is treated after considering various factors such as the age of the baby and the severity of the condition. Usually, a medical practitioner will recommend certain feeding practices such as burping your baby and holding him upright for 30 minutes after feeding (11). For older, weaning babies, you can add rice cereal to their purees to thicken them, which prevents the upward movement of food.

5. Appendicitis:

Appendicitis is an acute inflammation of the appendix, which is an appendage attached to the large intestine at the lower right corner of the abdominal cavity. The appendix is a close-ended tube, and if it gets obstructed by a fecal particle, it swells. This blockage increases the pressure within the appendix causing a sharp pain at the lower right corner of the abdomen. The pain is so intense that the infant would cry incessantly.

Treatment: Prompt medical attention is essential to get this condition treated. Any delay can cause the appendix to burst. Surgical removal of the inflamed appendix is the only treatment for appendicitis.

[ Read: Symptoms Of Appendicitis In Infants ]

6. Pediatric hernia:

A hernia occurs when the small or large intestine slides out of the abdominal cavity causing discomfort and sometimes infection. Infants are at a risk of two types of a hernia – inguinal and umbilical (12). An inguinal hernia happens when the intestine slips into the inguinal canal leading to a swelling around the groin. An umbilical hernia occurs when the abdominal wall, right behind the navel, is damaged and lets a small section of the intestine slide out. Hernias can cause tissue atrophy, which is the death of the tissue due to lack of blood supply.

Treatment: Fortunately, hernias are visible from the outside, and therefore, can be noticed by a parent or a doctor during a routine checkup. Hernias close on their own over a period, but if they are painful, then medical intervention may be required. Surgical rectification of the breached intestines is a treatment for the condition.

7. Intestinal blockage:

Intestinal blockages are two types:

  • Pyloric stenosis happens when the muscles of the pylorus, the lower section of the stomach, enlarge abruptly thus restricting the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine (13). Infants with the condition will be hungry all the time but would vomit and have a constant stomach ache. Surgical treatment is the only way to treat the problem (14).
  • Intussusception is a rare condition where one section of the intestine collapses on the other creating a thick fold, which eventually becomes a blockage. The food doesn’t pass through easily since the intestinal muscles are unable to contract properly and the blood vessels and nerves in the fold get squeezed. It can cause stomach pain in infants at night when fed before bedtime. Surgery can help rectify the fold and treat the problem.

8. Inflammatory bowel disease:

Inflammatory bowel disease is a term referred to a group of diseases that cause a painful inflammation of the inner lining of the digestive tract – anywhere from the esophagus to the large intestine. Chronic stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea are some of the classic symptoms of this problem. These diseases can be rare in babies, but ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are two inflammatory bowel diseases that can affect infants (15). These problems are mostly a result of extreme genetic mutation. There is no definitive treatment for this condition and medication is aimed at cutting down the intensity of the pain and associated symptoms (16).

9. Urinary tract infection:

Urinary tract infections (UTI) can strike as early as 12 months (17). The tell-tale signs of the condition are a pain in the lower abdomen region and discomfort while urinating. UTIs are caused by bacterial invasion of the urinary tract. They occur due to poor sanitary hygiene such as delay in changing soiled diapers and unclean groin area.

Treatment: Antibiotics are the only treatment to UTIs, and in breastfed infants, it can be administered directly to the blood stream using intravenous therapy (18).

10. Constipation:

Constipation in babies younger than 12 months is very common and causes hardened stool that is very tough to pass. The retention of fecal matter for abnormally long durations causes bloating of the abdomen, leading to stomach pain and cramps (19).

Treatment: Weaning babies should be fed a diet rich in vegetables and coarse grains such as oat and barley. They should be made to drink enough water. Some simple baby massages and exercises recommended by a pediatrician can also relieve constipation.

[ Read: How To Treat Constipation In Infants ]

11. Gas:

A baby ingests air if he does not latch on to the breast/bottle nipple properly during feeding. The pain caused by the passage of gas through the intestines can be momentary and not severe. He will get cranky but feels relieved once he passes out the gas.

Treatment: Gas formation should not cause any severe problem to the baby. But parents can try some basic tummy massage techniques to help the baby pass gas easily.

12. Accidental ingestion of toxic substance:

Babies explore things by putting them in their mouths and gnawing at them too. This exposes the infants to toxic substances that can result in stomach pain. Lead, in household paints, is one of the most common materials that pose a risk to the babies. from.

Treatment: Toxic poisoning requires prompt medical attention. A doctor will deal with the poisoning after observing the symptoms and assessing the severity. If the levels of poisoning are high, then the doctor may make the baby expel it through induced regurgitation. Otherwise, an antitoxin is prescribed, and if the baby is weaning, then he can be served more water to flush the toxin out.

13. Motion sickness:

Motion sickness is uncommon but is probable cause for stomach pain. It may happen in babies that are traveling by air for the first time or those moving on an elevator. Stomach pain is accompanied by vomiting, though the baby’s general health is not affected.

Treatment: Withdrawing from the sickness-causing condition is the appropriate way to treat the stomach pain. You can also breastfeed the baby to make him feel comfortable or play with him to distract him from the discomfort.

14. Overfeeding and hunger pain:

Overfeeding and staying hungry for too long can lead to abdominal pain. The developing bodies of babies are incapable of staying hungry for long. Overfeeding is more common among bottle-fed babies than in breastfed ones since a bottle nipple provides a constant drip of milk. However, this may also occur in breastfeeding infants where the mother produces excess milk leading to a lactose overload (20).

Treatment: Preventing hunger is easy since you need to feed the baby on time and on-demand. For overeating, the best indicator is the frequency at which your baby excretes. If the urine and stool levels are higher, then he is probably being fed a lot. Bottle-fed babies reject or put aside the bottle when they are full. So promptly take it away to prevent overfeeding. Your doctor would guide you better about the feeding schedules.

15. Injury:

Older infants have a tendency to explore their surroundings, making them susceptible to injuries. A baby trying to take his first steps may accidentally fall tummy down on an object lying on the floor. This can lead to an injury of the delicate abdominal tissues, causing stomach pain.

Treatment: Baby-proofing your house and staying vigilant about your little one are the best ways to prevent an unnoticed accidental injury. It is always good to get him checked by a doctor if you suspect any internal injuries.

All these conditions can lead to stomach pain with various levels of intensity. In certain situations, you need to act immediately and take the baby to a doctor.

[ Read: How To Treat Diarrhea In Infants ]

When To Rush The Baby To The Doctor?

Here are certain situations that can indicate a serious health ailment and warrant prompt medical attention:

  1. Stomach ache accompanied by blood-infused stool and/or vomiting: If your baby’s stomach pain occurs with blood in stool or vomit, then the problem is severe, and you must rush the baby to the doctor immediately.
  1. Diarrhea and/or high fever with stomach pain: Infections such as gastroenteritis cause stomach pain accompanied by diarrhea. If the infection is acute, then it may also lead to high fever, which can distress the baby, and requires immediate medical attention. Getting him treated soon is the best way to get him out of the agony.
  1. Stomach pain interferes with feeding and sleeping: Painful stomach is bound to disrupt the baby’s feeding and sleeping patterns, affecting his general health. But it should not go out of hand.
  1. Swollen abdomen: A swollen tummy is an indicator of fluid retention due to infection, injury, or some other cause. It is an alarming thing to happen and should be brought to swift medical attention.
  1. The baby becomes semi-conscious with weak pulse after a bout of stomach pain: It can be a symptom of severe dehydration if the stomach pain occurs with diarrhea.

You need to be swift in your reaction. And this can happen if you are observant of the signs and symptoms of stomach ache that your baby displays.

What Are Symptoms Of Stomach Pain In Infants?

Each cause for stomach pain has its unique symptoms. However, there are some general external signs of stomach pain that your baby may display, such as the following:

  1. Does not eat properly: You may see a change in the baby’s feeding schedule while you even notice that he abnormally withdraws from feeding halfway through.
  1. Rubs his hands on stomach: He does so usually after eating and with a painful expression and bouts of crying.
  1. Folds his legs while expressing pain: Your baby folds his legs after a feed or a few hours later. Every time he does that he grimaces or wrenches in pain.
  1. Squeals in pain when touched on the abdomen: The abdominal muscles will also be tense, and when touched on the belly, the baby gives out a painful cry.
  1. Cries more than normal: Crying is a means of communication for your baby, but if he does so more than usual then it could be due to stomach pain.

It is hard to see your baby in pain, but thankfully there are some simple ways to provide him some relief.

[ Read: Loss Of Appetite In Babies ]

How To Ease A Baby’s Stomach Pain?

Do not attempt to treat your baby’s stomach pain by yourself and let the doctor take care of the medicine. Stomach pain in infants is different from that in adults so never give your baby laxatives or antacids. However, there are some basic measures you can take to help alleviate the intensity of the pain:

1. Give the baby plenty of fluids:

A constant intake of water is a safe home remedy for a baby’s stomach ache (21). It works on babies older than six months and when constipation is the cause of the pain. Water helps replenish the fluid content of the stool, making it easy to come out.

2. Give a massage:

If the cause of the pain is reflux or colic, then a massage can help soothe the baby. There are several types of massages that target specific causes of pain. Consult your baby’s doctor before proceeding.

3. Let the baby have a lot of rest:

It is important for the baby to stay relaxed. Make his sleeping conditions comfortable and cozy to relax the severity of the pain. You can also swaddle the baby in a soft, warm blanket, and hold him close to yourself. This will reassure the baby and help subdue the intensity of the stomach pain.

Rest and medication will help the infant recover soon. If your baby is older than six months, you might want to know the foods that you can give him when he has stomach pain.

What To Feed A Baby With Stomach Pain?

Feeding your baby during stomach pain depends on the cause of the problem. Consult the doctor about the food menu and feeding regime. Here are some of the foods that you can safely feed your baby:

  1. Breast milk: Breast milk is rich in essential nutrients and plays a vital role in preparing your baby’s stomach and intestine for solid food by transferring favorable gut bacteria from mother to the infant (22). These bacteria can help your little one have a healthy digestive system.
  1. Vegetable broth: If your baby is older than six months, you can feed him fresh homemade vegetable broth. The liquid food is easy on the stomach.
  1. Diluted fruit purees: Feed your baby diluted fruit purees since they contain natural sugars that are a great source of energy. Diluting it with water makes it easily digestible.
  1. Baby cereals: You can feed cereal porridge made from rice, barley, or oats. If the baby is constipated, then stick to oats and barley as they have fiber. Rice will do great since it is gluten-free and easy to digest.

You need to be careful about what the baby eats when he has a stomach ache.

To avoid the trouble for the baby and you, take measures to prevent the problem from recurring.

[ Read: Gas Problems In Infants ]

How To Prevent Stomach Ache In Babies?

You can take simple precautions to ensure that your baby does not suffer a stomach ache. Here are all the things you could do:

  1. Clean and hygienic food: Hygienic food is free of pathogens that spread through contaminated food and water. Prepare your baby’s food under hygienic conditions. Always clean the fruits and vegetables before processing them.
  1. Identify and manage food allergies: Understand your baby’s food allergy and whether it is an allergy or a simple intolerance towards a particular food. Once you know the baby is allergic/intolerant to something then take the necessary precautions to prevent that food.
  1. Feed the baby properly: Every time the baby breastfeeds, make him latch to the nipple properly with no air gaps. If he is on solids, make sure the food is not hard and he is gulping it properly.
  1. Give high priority to your baby’s hygiene: Germs often enter the baby’s mouth and stomach through accidental gnawing of household things. He will love putting anything in his mouth. Keeping the house clean and small objects beyond the baby’s reach can prevent the propagation of infection. Also important is maintaining your baby’s personal hygiene by giving him regular baths and cleaning him after he soils. These steps can go a long way in preventing infections that can cause severe tummy aches.

A stomach ache is painful for your baby and can be a symptom of a health problem. Taking timely medical advice and adhering to precaution is the best way to treat the condition and prevent its recurrence.

Have an experience to share about stomach ache in babies? Do tell us by leaving a comment below.

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  • aarti khanna

    Hey Chetana, nice article! It really becomes difficult when baby has tummy trouble. And many times it is hard to find out the exact cause of stomach pain. Whenever my baby has stomach pain , I hold him in such a way that he can feel my warmth and as he can sense the love and patience, usually he calms down.