The 5 Most Common Digestive Disorders in Kids

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN on November 10, 2020
  • Shy young boy holding onto mother's leg
    More Than Tummy Trouble
    Digestive disorders can disrupt a child’s growth and development—and make life uncomfortable for you and your child. But how can you tell the difference between passing tummy trouble and a disturbing digestive disorder? By recognizing the symptoms of these five most common digestive conditions in children, you can help your child find effective treatment and enjoy a safe, healthy diet.
  • Baby girl drinking from bottle on sofa
    1. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
    What it is: It’s perfectly normal for babies to spit up many times per day in the first few months of life. But if your baby is also irritable and has difficulty eating, your child might have GERD, a condition in which stomach acid backs up and irritates the esophagus, the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach.

    Number of children affected: Two-thirds of four-month-old babies have symptoms of GERD. By age one, about 10% of infants have GERD. 

  • Lovely Baby Wondering
    How to Help Kids With GERD
    Simple tweaks in feeding routine can make all the difference for babies with GERD. Avoid overfeeding; if your baby stops nursing or drinking from the bottle, don’t encourage more. Keep your baby upright for half an hour after feeding, but avoid placing your baby in a car seat when not in a moving vehicle. The semi-reclined position in the car seat can promote reflux. Prescription medication can help, but is rarely necessary. Most children outgrow GERD. 
  • Kids eating sandwiches
    2. Celiac Disease
    What it is: Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. When people with celiac disease eat gluten-containing foods, their immune system attacks and damages the lining of the small intestine.

    Number of children affected: Approximately 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease. Children whose parents, siblings, aunts or uncles have celiac disease are most likely to have the condition. 

  • child-eating-apple-with-father
    How to Help Kids With Celiac Disease
    Celiac disease can be an invisible disease; more than half of all affected children do not have any symptoms. Children who do experience symptoms might not be diagnosed because the signs—stomach pain, gas, diarrhea—are incredibly common. Bring any unusual digestive symptoms to your pediatrician’s attention, particularly if your child has a family history of celiac disease, is losing weight, or is failing to grow. Your doctor can run tests to check for celiac disease. The only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. 
  • mother-caring-for-sick-child
    3. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
    What it is: Inflammatory bowel disease is an inflammation of the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are both types of inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms include diarrhea, blood in the stools, and abdominal pain.

    Number of children affected: More than 1.6 million Americans have IBD. About 10% of those diagnosed are under the age of 18. 

  • doctor-speaking-with-mother-and-child
    How to Help Kids With IBD
    Proper diagnosis is key to effective treatment. Your child’s doctor may order blood tests, X-rays and other imaging scans to pinpoint the source of your child’s discomfort. Medication can ease the symptoms of IBD and improve digestion. Some of these medications suppress the immune system, so talk to your healthcare provider about ways to keep your child healthy. Good nutrition is important too. Serve easy-to-eat, nutrient dense foods, such as bananas, whole-wheat pasta and eggs. During flare-ups, avoid nuts and seeds, which can irritate the intestine. 
  • Baby drinking milk
    4. Lactose Intolerance
    What it is: Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in milk. People who are lactose-intolerant lack the enzyme needed to break down this sugar, so they can’t digest it. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps, and gas or bloating after eating dairy products.

    Number of children affected: It's difficult to say. Almost all human babies can digest lactose at birth. By age 20, about 30 million Americans have some degree of lactose intolerance. 

  • kid drinking milk
    How to Help Kids With Lactose Intolerance
    If your child experiences discomfort eating dairy, try holding off on all milk-based products for a while and see how he feels. The good news is a child with lactose intolerance may not have to avoid dairy forever. Some people find they can handle small amounts of milk, ice cream or cheese, particularly if eaten with other food. Another option: enzyme supplements, such as Lactaid tablets. These pills contain the enzyme needed to help your child break down lactose in food, and can be taken as needed.
  • Young boy eating multigrain bread with nut butter
    5. Eosinophilic Esophagitis
    What it is: Inflammation of the esophagus, the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach, caused by a collection of white blood cells called eosinophils. Eosinophilic esophagitis can cause difficulty swallowing, pain, nausea and vomiting.

    Number of children affected: Approximately 1 in 10,000. Nearly three-quarters of those affected are white males. 

  • Doctor examining child
    How to Help Kids With Eosinophilic Esophagitis
    Eosinophilic esophagitis is often caused by a food allergy, so your child’s doctor may recommend allergy testing and an elimination diet.  During an elimination diet, you remove all likely irritants from your child’s diet, including common allergy-causing foods such as milk, eggs, nuts, beef, wheat, fish, shellfish, corn and soy. These foods are added back in gradually, one at a time, while you carefully watch for the recurrence of symptoms. Once your child’s triggers have been identified, avoid those foods and you should see symptoms improve.
The 5 Most Common Digestive Disorders in Kids
  1. Definition and Facts for GER and GERD in Infants. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  2. Reflux & GERD. North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.
  3. Pediatric Celiac Disease. North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology,
  4. Celiac Disease Facts and Figures. University of Chicago Medicine.
  5. Celiac Disease. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.
  6. Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE) in Children. North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology.,
  7. Inflammatory Bowel Disease. North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology,
  8. Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis: Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. A Guide for Parents.
  9. Common Gastrointestinal Problems in Pediatric Patients. Childrens Hospital of Michigan.
  10. Malabsorption. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.
  11. Lactose Intolerance. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.

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Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 10
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