Manage IBS in Children

ibs in children

Understanding IBS in Children

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a persistent condition that impacts the large intestine, or colon. Children with IBS often experience discomfort and pain in the abdomen, along with various bowel symptoms. Although the colon looks normal in those with IBS, it doesn’t function properly.

Causes of IBS in Children

The precise cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in children is not yet fully understood. However, it is believed that children with IBS often have a colon that is more sensitive than usual. This heightened sensitivity means their colon has an exaggerated response to stimuli that wouldn’t normally cause discomfort.

There are several factors that can trigger IBS symptoms in children:

  1. Problems with Food Movement: Issues with how food moves through the digestive system can lead to IBS symptoms. This irregular movement can cause pain and discomfort as the digestive process is disrupted.
  2. Increased Sensitivity: The inner lining of the bowel in children with IBS can be extremely sensitive to stretching and motion. This hypersensitivity can result in pain and other symptoms when the bowel is engaged in normal activities.
  3. Stress: Emotional and psychological stress can exacerbate IBS symptoms. Stress can affect how the digestive system functions, leading to increased pain and irregular bowel movements.
  4. Bacterial Overgrowth: An overgrowth of bacteria in the bowel can also contribute to IBS symptoms. This imbalance can disrupt the normal digestive process, causing pain and discomfort.

It is important to communicate to your child that their abdominal pain is very real and not just imagined. Validating their experience can help them cope with the discomfort and encourage them to follow any recommended treatment plans. Understanding that these symptoms are caused by tangible physical factors can provide some reassurance and aid in managing the condition.

Which Children Are at Risk for IBS?

Children are at an increased risk for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) if one or both of their parents have the disorder. Genetics play a significant role in the likelihood of developing IBS. Additionally, teenagers are more susceptible to IBS than younger children, though the condition affects both boys and girls equally.

Symptoms of IBS in Children

The symptoms of IBS can vary from child to child, but common symptoms include:

  • Recurring Belly Pain: Persistent abdominal pain that continues for more than three months is considered chronic.
  • Changes in Bowel Habits: This can include episodes of diarrhea or constipation.
  • Nausea: A frequent upset stomach can be a symptom of IBS.
  • Dizziness: Some children with IBS may experience dizziness.
  • Loss of Appetite: IBS can lead to a decreased desire to eat.
  • Bloating and Gas: Swelling of the abdomen and excessive gas are common symptoms.
  • Cramping: Abdominal cramps can occur, adding to the discomfort.
  • Urgency: There may be an immediate need to have a bowel movement.
  • Incomplete Evacuation: A sensation that not all stool has passed during a bowel movement.
  • Mucus in Stool: The presence of mucus in the stool can be a sign of IBS.

These symptoms can mimic other health problems, so it is important to consult a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis if your child exhibits these signs. Early diagnosis and management can help alleviate the discomfort associated with IBS and improve your child’s quality of life.

How is IBS Diagnosed in a Child?

Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in children involves a comprehensive approach by the healthcare provider, who will take a detailed health history and conduct a physical examination. IBS is diagnosed primarily by ruling out other potential causes of the symptoms.

Certain symptoms can indicate conditions other than IBS, guiding the healthcare provider on necessary tests and procedures. These symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Unexplained fever
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Delayed growth
  • Enlarged liver

To further investigate, the provider will order various lab tests to check for infection and inflammation. These may include:

  • Blood Tests: To check for anemia, infection, or illnesses caused by inflammation or irritation.
  • Urine Analysis and Culture: To detect urinary tract infections.
  • Stool Sample: To identify bacteria and parasites that could cause diarrhea.
  • Stool Samples for Occult Blood: To detect hidden blood in the stool, which may indicate gastrointestinal inflammation.
  • Lactose Breath Hydrogen Test: To determine if your child is lactose intolerant.
  • Abdominal X-ray: To provide an overview of how the internal organs appear.
  • Abdominal Ultrasound: To visualize the internal organs in action using high-frequency sound waves.
  • EGD (Esophagogastroduodenoscopy) or Upper Endoscopy: To examine the inside of the digestive tract using a small, flexible tube with a light and camera. Tissue samples may be taken for further testing.
  • Colonoscopy: To inspect the inside of the large intestine using a long, flexible tube with a light and camera.

How is IBS Treated in a Child?

The treatment plan for a child with IBS will be tailored by the healthcare provider based on several factors, including:

  • The child’s age, overall health, and medical history
  • The severity of the child’s condition
  • The child’s response to various medications, treatments, or therapies
  • The likelihood of the condition worsening
  • The preferences and opinions of the child and their family

By considering these aspects, the healthcare provider will develop a comprehensive care plan aimed at managing the symptoms and improving the child’s quality of life.

How is IBS Treated in a Child?

There is currently no cure for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The primary goal of treatment is to alleviate symptoms and help your child resume normal daily activities. Treatment strategies may include:

Dietary Changes

  • Lactose Intolerance: Lactose can trigger IBS symptoms. If your child is lactose intolerant, it’s best to limit their intake of lactose. Consult your child’s healthcare provider about using lactase supplements (like Lactaid) to help digest lactose.
  • High Fiber Intake: While high fiber is recommended for adults, it can cause gas and bloating in children. It may still benefit children with constipation, but it’s best to discuss this with your healthcare provider.
  • Probiotics: Adding probiotics to your child’s diet may be helpful, but not all probiotics are the same, and they are not regulated by the FDA. Check with your child’s healthcare provider before introducing probiotics.
  • Other Dietary Adjustments: If your child has a food allergy or intolerance, additional dietary changes might be necessary.


  • For Severe Symptoms: If your child experiences severe symptoms, medication might be required to manage their condition.

Stress Management

  • Distraction Techniques: During painful episodes, try to help your child focus on enjoyable or relaxing activities.
  • Specialist Interventions: In rare cases, pain management specialists might be consulted. Techniques such as biofeedback, acupuncture, mindfulness, and yoga can be beneficial.

What are the Possible Complications of IBS in a Child?

Children with IBS often experience physical discomfort, which can lead to stress and emotional challenges. For instance, children with diarrhea might not always reach the bathroom in time, causing embarrassment and potentially leading to avoidance of school or social activities. This can result in depression and anxiety.

Most children with IBS continue to grow and develop normally. However, some might eat less to avoid the pain associated with digestion, which can lead to weight loss. It’s important to monitor your child’s physical and emotional well-being and seek support from healthcare providers as needed.

How Can I Help My Child Live with IBS?

IBS symptoms can significantly impact your child’s daily activities. Collaborating with your child’s healthcare provider is crucial to effectively manage the condition. This may involve creating a comprehensive plan addressing diet, school, and emotional or mental health.

Identifying and Avoiding Triggers

Understanding the triggers that provoke your child’s symptoms is essential. Common triggers include:

  • Large Meals: Smaller, more frequent meals can be helpful.
  • Fatty Foods: These can exacerbate symptoms.
  • Milk Products: Lactose intolerance can be a trigger.
  • Caffeine: Often found in soda and chocolate, caffeine can worsen symptoms.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: These can also trigger symptoms.

Keeping a food and symptom diary can help you identify and avoid these triggers more effectively.

Positive Coping Strategies

Encouraging your child to adopt positive coping mechanisms can help them participate in school and other activities. Some helpful methods include:

  • Relaxation Techniques: Practices like deep breathing or meditation.
  • Distraction: Engaging in enjoyable activities to divert attention from discomfort.
  • Guided Imagery: Visualization techniques to promote relaxation.
  • Hypnotherapy: Using hypnosis to manage symptoms.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of IBS.
  • Biofeedback: Learning to control bodily processes that are typically involuntary.

Consult with your child’s healthcare provider to determine the most suitable methods and interventions for your child.

Professional Support

If your child struggles to cope with IBS, it may be beneficial to seek additional support from specialists, such as:

  • Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician: Focuses on behavioral and developmental issues.
  • Teen Medicine Specialist: Addresses the specific needs of adolescents.
  • Mental Health Provider: Offers psychological support and therapy.

Working with these professionals can help your child manage IBS more effectively, improving their overall quality of life.

When Should I Call My Child’s Healthcare Provider?

It’s important to stay vigilant about your child’s health when managing IBS. Contact your child’s healthcare provider if your child exhibits any of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Long-term (chronic) diarrhea or constipation
  • Any other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms

Additionally, if your child has already been diagnosed with IBS and develops other concerning symptoms, call your child’s provider immediately. These symptoms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Urinary symptoms
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Skin changes

Next Steps

To get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider, consider the following tips:

  • Know the Purpose of the Visit: Understand why you are visiting and what you hope to achieve.
  • Prepare Questions: Write down any questions you have before the visit.
  • Take Notes: During the visit, jot down the name of any new diagnosis, medications, treatments, or tests, as well as any new instructions from the provider.
  • Understand Medications and Treatments: Know why any new medication or treatment is prescribed, how it will help, and what side effects it may have.
  • Ask About Alternatives: Inquire if there are other ways to treat your child’s condition.
  • Understand Tests and Procedures: Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the possible outcomes are.
  • Know the Consequences of Not Following Recommendations: Understand what might happen if your child does not take the prescribed medication or undergo the recommended tests or procedures.
  • Follow-Up Appointments: Write down the date, time, and purpose of any follow-up visits.
  • After-Hours Contact: Find out how to reach your child’s provider outside of office hours for urgent questions or advice.

By following these steps, you can ensure that you are fully prepared and informed during visits to your child’s healthcare provider, enabling you to better support your child in managing their IBS.


  • Karabulut, G. S., Beşer, O. F., Erginöz, E., Kutlu, T., Cokuğraş, F. Ç., & Erkan, T. (2013). “The incidence of irritable bowel syndrome in children using the Rome III criteria and the effect of trimebutine treatment,” Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility.
  • Oświęcimska, J., Szymlak, A., Roczniak, W., Girczys-Połedniok, K., & Kwiecień, J. (2017). “New insights into the pathogenesis and treatment of irritable bowel syndrome,” Advances in Medical Sciences.

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