Joanne Capano

Safeguard Your Child's Digestive Health

Teach your child not to eat too fast, a recipe for stomach upset.

When a small child suffers from stomach upset, it can be very unpleasant for child and parents alike. Sometimes a sore tummy can be symptomatic of a cold or allergies, and you either have to wait it out or consult a health care professional. There are times, however, when pain, bloating, belching, or flatulence are due to poor digestion brought on by poor eating habits.

Proper digestion is important not only to prevent stomach upset, but also to create an environment for optimal absorption of vitamins and minerals. Absorption is an important factor in the digestive process. The digestive system performs three critical functions that maintain overall health in the body: digestion, absorption and excretion of waste.

When one function is compromised, it adversely 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's essential that the digestive system be able to do everything nature intended.

The best way to prevent stomach upset in children is to teach good eating habits from a very young age.


1. Encourage Children to Chew, Chew, Chew

The digestive process begins in the mouth. How long a child chews food can determine how easily the food is digested in the stomach. Throughout the digestive system, different sections secrete different enzymes, which help with the proper breakdown of food. The enzyme amylase is released through the salivary glands in the mouth when we chew. Amylase is an essential enzyme in the breakdown of starchy foods into smaller, more absorbable units.

Unfortunately, small children often gulp their food, resulting in large food particles entering the stomach. When this occurs, a child is more susceptible to indigestion. Encourage your children to chew their food well, ideally until each mouthful reaches a paste-like consistency before it's swallowed.

With very young kids, make a game of it: Sing a line of your child's favorite song as he/she chews a biteful. When you reach the end, tell the child to swallow.

2. Avoid Processed Foods

Foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat are harder to digest than whole, natural foods. Well-balanced meals with plenty of fiber-rich foods like fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, move easily through the digestive system because the body is equipped to break down these foods. Refined foods upset the natural balance of digestion, often by requiring 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 incredible strain on the digestive system, resulting in possible pain and discomfort.

3. Eat first, Play later

Children should be taught to eat sitting at a table without toys or distractions, including TV and electronic gadgets. This way, the child will pay closer attention to his body signals and stop eating before he feels overly full.

Overeating often leads to indigestion because the digestive system is required to work harder to break down more food. This creates uncomfortable feelings of fullness, bloating, gas and even pain. Teaching children to pay attention to their food and their bodies will discourage mindless eating and overeating.

4. Drink Less With 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 turns food particles in the stomach into a liquid called chyme before it enters the small intestines and becomes absorbed into the bloodstream. Pepsin is an enzyme necessary for the breakdown of proteins.

Drinking large quantities of water or other liquids while eating can dilute both of these stomach juices and compromise the digestive process. Low levels of hydrochloric acid can cause stomachaches in small children, as the stomach struggles to churn. Encourage children to take only small sips of liquids with meals.

5. Healthy Minds, Healthy Stomachs

Often referred to the body's second brain, the enteric nervous system manages every aspect 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 circuitry, neurotransmitters and proteins, governed by our emotions.

It's no surprise that there's a direct relationship between emotional stress and physical distress. When we're feeling sad, anxious or excited, our digestion system is unable to effectively digest, absorb and excrete, which can lead to abdominal discomfort.

When we help our children deal with their emotions in a positive manner, we not only help their psychological state of mind, but we also create an environment for optimal digestion.

6. Exercise Does a Tummy Good

Food, exercise and digestion are closely related. Accelerating our breathing and heart rate helps our intestinal muscles contract, which assists in quick, fluid and efficient bowel movements. Infrequent bowel movements can lead to stomach upset in young children. Besides the many other physiological and emotional benefits of exercise, children need to participate in active play every day to aid the digestive process.

Run, skip, jump or dance, do whatever it takes to get your kids off the couch for at least a few minutes several times a day.

7. When to Seek Help

Any prolonged abdominal pain or discomfort in your children should be brought to the attention of your health care practitioner. What may appear to be a bad case of indigestion could be the symptom of a more serious health problem. Trust your instinct and do what's best for your child.


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