What Causes Indigestion in Children? Here Are 5 Surprising Reasons

Indigestion is not just a problem for adults. Children can get it too. Discover what causes indigestion and ways to help your little one smile again.

Little boy wearing blue shirt holds upset stomach with one hand

Indigestion affects approximately 16.5% of children in Asia. Adult indigestion usually stems from the demands and stresses of adult life, but what causes indigestion in children? Learn about the symptoms, causes, as well as remedies to help ease this childhood condition.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Indigestion

Indigestion is a feeling of discomfort and pain in the upper part of the stomach. A sensitive stomach lining or an overproduction of digestive acids that irritate and move up the oesophagus can lead to symptoms that can turn your little one’s smile into a frown.

You can tell your child has indigestion from the signs they display: 

  • They may complain of a painful tummy, a bloated stomach, and sometimes nausea.  
  • You may also notice that they burp and hiccup more than usual.  
  • They may tell you that they feel full or refuse food altogether.  
  • Children will also cough even though you know they don’t have a cold, and their voice sounds hoarse when speaking. 

What Causes Indigestion in Children?

Little girl eating potato chips with older sister
Eating rich snacks like spicy potato chips can cause indigestion. 

Many things can overwhelm a child’s digestive system and cause indigestion. Here are some of the most common causes.

1. Eating too much and too quickly 

As young children develop their sense of taste and preferences, they may get very excited during mealtime, especially during gatherings like birthday parties. When they overeat or gobble their food too quickly, their digestive system becomes overwhelmed, prompting the stomach to produce too much acid.

2. Eating foods that are too rich, fibrous, or acidic

Oily, spicy, and sugary foods often cause indigestion. But did you know that some healthy foods can also contribute to this condition? Too much fibre from vegetables and fruits can overwhelm digestion leading to bloating and cramps, while acidic foods like citrus fruits or tomatoes can trigger more acid in the stomach.

3. Eating too close to bedtime

Sometimes daily life can get a little hectic, and dinner is too close to bedtime. When lying down while the stomach is still digesting, stomach acids move up the oesophagus, causing heartburn.

4. Irritation due to medication

Certain medications such as painkillers, antihistamines, and antidepressants can irritate the stomach lining by encouraging overproduction of acid, even when taken at the prescribed dosage for children. This could be due to a sensitivity to the medication or prolonged use that causes the sensitivity to develop.

5. Childhood obesity

Aside from the many other ailments caused by obesity, excess weight can also cause indigestion in children. Extra fat in the abdomen exerts pressure up and into the stomach, making digestion less optimal and causing acid reflux. Sometimes this can also develop into a hiatal hernia, in which the stomach bulges and pushes up against the diaphragm, leading to acid reflux, severe chest pains and persistent upset stomach. Should these symptoms present themselves, please see a doctor immediately. 

Easing Indigestion in Children

Dried slices of Chinese yam on a brown wooden table
As part of a TCM regimen, Chinese yam nourishes the spleen and encourages healthy digestion.

Home remedies, over-the-counter medicine, and herbs can help control your child’s indigestion symptoms. You will also need to avoid foods and situations that cause it.

Simple home remedies

Try these simple home remedies to help ease the discomfort: 

  • Loosen your child’s clothing, especially around the stomach, and have your child lean back and rest. Gently rub their tummy in a clockwise direction to promote digestion, or try placing a warm heating pad on it.  
  • Before resorting to acid reflux medicines such as H2-blockers or proton-pump inhibitors, try dairy products such as yoghurt, which contains probiotics and is beneficial for gut health first.  

Under the guidance of a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician, you can use herbs that help with indigestion, such as high-fibre barley malt, medicated leaven, hawthorn berries, radish seed, and dried chayote.

Once your child’s symptoms have calmed, strengthen the spleen with herbs such as poria, atractylodes, astragalus, and Chinese yam.

Paediatric tuina massage by a trained TCM practitioner can also help. Among the techniques used include rubbing the area around the belly button clockwise with four fingers or the palm.

Prevention tips

Opt for smaller meals rather than a few large ones to prevent indigestion. Make sure dinner is at least three hours before bedtime. Limit oily, spicy, or sugary snacks as well as carbonated drinks. Maintaining a healthy weight is also essential.

Understand what causes indigestion, and pay attention to your child’s symptoms to ensure it is not something more serious like the stomach flu or GERD. These two ailments usually require different treatments. Indigestion is usually not a cause for great concern and will respond well to a combination of home remedies, TCM, and a quick visit to the family doctor. 

This is an adaptation of an article, “TCM and Childhood Ailments: Indigestion”, which first appeared on Eu Yan Sang website.

References

  1. PLoS ONE. 2015. Epidemiology of Pediatric Functional Abdominal Pain Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
  2. MyHealth Alberta Canada. 2021. Indigestion in Children: Care Instructions. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
  3. Torrance Memorial. 2013. Heartburn and Indigestion. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
  4. Scripps.org. 2019. Stomach Pain in Kids and Teens. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2021. GERD (Gastroesophageal Disease) in Children. [Accessed 13 December 2021]
  6. University of Florida Health. 2020. Gastroesophageal reflux disease – children. [Accessed 13 December 2021]

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