Kids & Bellyaches: They’re Often Stress-Related



It was the first morning of our summer vacation trip, and we were all sitting down at the table to get ready for breakfast. Suddenly a scream of terror came from across the bayhouse. It was my daughter, who was 5 years old at the time. I jumped from the table and ran in her direction. She was in the bathroom. The screaming stopped as I opened the door.

“What’s wrong?”
“It won’t come out! It’s stuck!” she exclaimed, panic-stricken and terrified.

mommymattersLet’s face it: Gastrointestinal problems can be downright scary, especially when you’re a kid. And when you’re a child, few things are worse than having these issues at school. School nurses are seeing these problems more and more among kids. Here are some tips to help you understand what might be happening.

School nurses Eleanor Pringle and Kathi Martinez of the Alamo Heights Independent School District shared their experience with gastrointestinal problems students often experience, including the following:

Constipation: Both Pringle and Martinez acknowledged that constipation tends to be most problematic with younger students and is often stress-related.

Stomach upset: Nurse Pringle noted that stomachaches are one of the top two complaints she sees in her clinic. “It is difficult to determine if this has a pathologic cause, if it is stress or if it is a way for the student to disengage from academic or social environments. If stomach ache is recurrent, I will contact a parent and recommend a visit to a primary health provider. If it is accompanied by other symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting or intense distress, I will contact a parent for further evaluation,” she says..

Food allergies and intolerance: Nurse Martinez noted she has seen an increase in food intolerances and allergies since she first started as a nurse. “Irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease occur occasionally in this population,” she noted. “It’s hard to say if the incidence has increased or if it is being diagnosed more frequently due to better screening and follow-up.”

Nurses Pringle and Martinez suggested the following five tips to prevent gastrointestinal problems during the school day.

1. Schedule morning bathroom time
Nurse Pringle suggested a simple practice parents can use to help prevent problems before their kids head off to school: “I encourage parents to help their kids establish a bowel schedule that includes taking time to use the restroom in the morning before school, even if there is not an urge to use the bathroom. This establishes a pattern that can enable the child to have more control over when and where he or she has a bowel movement. Lots of times, students are very busy at school and will defer bathroom use.”

2. Drink more water
School nurse Kathi Martinez recommended packing two or three small water bottles to help balance your child’s gastrointestinal system. She provided the following guidelines for daily water intake:

5-8 years = five 8-ounce glasses of water

9-12 years = seven 8-ounce glasses of water

13+ years = eight to 10 8-ounce glasses of water

*Add one or two additional glasses of water per day for children who participate in sports or during the hot summer months.

3. Adjust fiber intake
If your child suffers from frequent constipation, adding fiber to his or her diet is a must. Nurse Pringle recommended packing several snacks for your child to eat during the day, but stay away from processed items and opt for healthier, high-fiber choices. “Many pre-packaged snacks are loaded with processed ingredients, refined sugars and flours and have little dietary fiber. Carrot sticks, low-sugar cereal bars, raisins, apple slices are all examples of high-fiber, low-added-sugar snacks that promote regular digestion. Additionally, probiotic foods like low-sugar yogurt help maintain healthy gut bacteria, which can aid in digestion.”

4. Exercise regularly
To keep digestive processes moving as they should, make sure your child gets at least one hour of exercise each day. According to Nurse Pringle, “Vigorous physical activity is another way to ‘get things moving’ and should be engaged in at least an hour a day, if not longer. All of our students engage in a physical activity class one hour a day and have daily outdoor recess.”

5. Manage stress
Nurse Martinez acknowledged that stress is often the root cause of gastrointestinal concerns: “When children are faced with a new task to learn, whether it is letters in kindergarten or advanced math in junior high or high school, it can create an upset tummy, which sometimes will lead to a loose bowel movement or a diarrhea stool. Helping your child to deal with stress through mindfulness, positive self- talk, deep breathing, other stress-relieving activities like prayer or mediation can help decrease the stress and hopefully alleviate the effects on the bowels. As a parent, be willing to prepare and assist your children with learning. This will help alleviate or reduce their stress.”

A few glasses of water later, things were running smoothly again for my daughter on our summer trip. It’s kind of funny to laugh about now, but constipation and other gastrointestinal issues can be seriously distressing for young and old alike. Back-to-school is prime time for these problems to surface because of stress, change of routine and different eating habits. Take these steps to keep your child out of the bathroom – or the nurse’s office – and in the classroom.

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