SEE: How to help your child cope with IBS

Help your little one to cope with IBS (iStock)
Help your little one to cope with IBS (iStock)

The crippling abdominal cramps and other symptoms associated with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) are hard for adults to cope with. It can be even worse for a small child to understand and handle these symptoms at school, during extramural activities or when visiting friends.

Is IBS common in children?

On a global basis, the IBS prevalence rate is between 10% and 15%, but in South Africa it's a little lower and is estimated to occur in about 8% of the population. Research on the prevalence of IBS specifically in children and teenagers is still fairly limited in South Africa.

The fact that there are no specific tests for the diagnosis of IBS, in addition to the various overlapping symptoms used in the diagnosis classification, makes it even more difficult to pinpoint IBS in children.

How do I know if my child has IBS?

As in adults, children will display recurring abdominal cramps, a change in bowel movements, abnormal stool movements and a flare-up of symptoms when eating certain foods. Look out for the following:

  • Bowel movements that are more or less frequent than usual
  • Stools with a significantly different texture 
  • A decrease in abdominal pain or discomfort with a bowel movement

Some symptoms common in adults with IBS that usually occur after eating can also present in children. Bridget Surtees, a registered dietitian from Cape Town, says that any unusual activity in your child's bowel movement should definitely be checked out by a doctor. In order for the child to be diagnosed with IBS, the following symptoms need to be present for at least three days a month for a period of three months or longer:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Mucus in stools
  • Bloating

What causes IBS in children?

The causes of IBS remain a mystery to researchers worldwide. In the past, it was thought that IBS was caused only by psychological factors such as stress, but since then other theories such as decreased serotonin production, genetics, inflammation and an abnormal growth of bacteria in the gut have been presented to explain IBS.

The possible causes of IBS in adults are thought to be similar in children, and studies have shown that IBS is more common in children with family members who have a history of IBS. IBS has also been linked to mental health problems, problems between the brain and nerves in the intestines, as well as hypersensitivity.

What should I do if I suspect that my child has IBS?

Monitor your child’s bowel movements especially after they have eaten. If problems occur twice a week for a duration of minimum two months and your child is still growing normally, it is possible that they could be suffering from IBS.

A physical examination by your GP is advisable, where questions will be asked regarding your child’s medical history and regular diet. Additional tests might be necessary to rule out other conditions. Surtees also suggests making gradual changes to a child's diet, ensuring they get enough fibre, and eliminating the foods that cause a flare-up of symptoms. 

Read more:

Preventing IBS

Behaviour therapy calms IBS

Living with IBS

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