When a young child has an upset stomach, it can be very upsetting for both him and the parents. Sometimes a stomach ache can be caused by a cold or allergies. If it is a cold, you just have to wait for it to pass, but if it is allergies it is best to consult a doctor. However, there are also times when these discomforts such as pain, bloating, gas, or belching are the result of poor eating habits and poor digestive health .

The importance of good digestion in children

Proper digestion is important not only to prevent stomach upset, but also to create an environment conducive to optimal absorption of vitamins and minerals . Absorption is an important factor in the digestive process. 

The digestive system performs three critical functions that maintain the overall health of the body: digestion, absorption, and excretion of waste. When one function is compromised, it negatively affects the other. If the body cannot digest, it cannot absorb; if it cannot absorb, it cannot excrete. 

Since childhood is a time of rapid growth, it is essential that the digestive system is able to fulfill its function to the fullest.

The best way to prevent stomach upsets in young children is to teach them good eating habits from a very young age. These easy-to-implement feeding tips will instill good eating habits in your child and help prevent stomach aches and pains.

1. Teach your children to chew their food well

The digestive process begins in the mouth with the act of chewing. The length of time a child chews their food can determine how easily the food is digested in the stomach. Throughout the digestive system, there are different sections that secrete different enzymes which help food break down properly. 

When we chew, the enzyme amylase is released through the salivary glands of the mouth. Amylase is an essential enzyme in breaking down starchy foods into smaller, absorbable units. 

Unfortunately, very active young children often swallow their food, overlooking this important step in the digestive process that will cause large food particles to enter the stomach. When this occurs, a child is more susceptible to experiencing indigestion symptoms and affecting their digestive health . 

Teach your children to chew their food well, ideally until each bite reaches a doughy consistency before swallowing. In the case of very young children, make it a game: parents, sing a line of your little one’s favorite song while chewing a bite, when it reaches the end, tell the child to swallow. 

2. Avoid processed foods to promote better digestive health

Foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat are more difficult to digest than whole, natural foods. Well-balanced meals with plenty of fiber-rich foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, will move easily through the digestive system as the body is equipped to break down these foods into digestible units. 

However, refined foods often upset the natural balance of digestion as they require more enzymes, more hydrochloric acid, more bile, more insulin, and more energy to digest, absorb, and excrete. 

This not only exhausts the body and can contribute to future health problems, but it also puts great pressure on the digestive system, resulting in potential aches and pains.

3. Eat first, play later

Children should be taught to eat at a table without toys or distractions, including television and electronics. In this way, the child will pay more attention to the signals of his body and will stop eating before feeling too full . 

Overeating can lead to indigestion symptoms as it will require the digestive system to work harder to break down more food. This puts undue stress on the digestive process and produces an uncomfortable feeling of bloating, gas, and even pain. 

Teaching children to pay attention to their food and their bodies will cause them to stop overeating just for the sake of eating. Engage in pleasant conversation over mealtimes to keep your kids interested enough to sit still at the table, but mindful enough to be wary of their own body and digestive health signals.

4. Drink less during meals

The stomach produces two components necessary for the digestive process: hydrochloric acid (HCI) and the enzyme pepsin . Hydrochloric acid stimulates the churning process that will turn food particles in the stomach into a liquid called chyme before it enters the small intestine and is absorbed into the bloodstream. 

Pepsin is an enzyme necessary for the breakdown of proteins. Drinking large amounts of water or other fluids while eating can dilute both stomach juices and affect the digestive process. 

Having low levels of hydrochloric acid can cause stomach pain in young children, as the stomach is struggling to churn up food. Large protein particles also struggle to be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a young child discomfort. Teach your children to take small sips of liquids with their meals for optimal digestion.

5. Healthy minds, healthy stomachs

The enteric nervous system, which is often referred to as the second brain, handles all aspects of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, intestines, and colon. Like the central nervous system, the enteric nervous system also contains a complex network of neural circuits, neurotransmitters, and proteins, governed by our emotions. 

It is not surprising that there is a direct relationship between emotional stress and physical distress. When we’re feeling sad, anxious, or excited, our digestive system can’t digest, absorb, and excrete effectively, which can lead to abdominal discomfort. 

Children, like adults, can also experience stress, negatively affecting their digestive system. When we help children deal with their emotions in a positive way, we not only support their psychological state of mind, but we create an environment for optimal digestion.

6. Exercise is good for digestive health

Diet, exercise, and digestion are closely related. Accelerating our breathing and heart rate helps our intestinal muscles contract, which helps to evacuate the intestines quickly, smoothly and efficiently. A reduced frequency of bowel movements can cause stomach upset in young children. 

In addition to the many other physiological and emotional benefits of exercise, children need to participate in active play every day to promote their digestive process . Run, jump, or dance, do whatever it takes to get the kids off the couch for at least a few minutes, several times a day.

Good habits start from youth

Many of our childhood habits last into adulthood. Teaching children good eating habits will not only help prevent their upset stomach, but it will also guide them towards a healthier lifestyle . 

However, don’t hesitate to tell a doctor about any prolonged abdominal pain or discomfort in your children. What may seem like a bad case of indigestion could be the symptom of a more serious health problem. Trust your instincts and do what is best for your child.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses. He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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