“Mommy, my tummy hurts”
Have you ever heard those words, asked where it hurts and watched your child point to their WHOLE tummy, plus maybe an elbow and an earlobe for good measure? Same here.
With such vague information, it can be incredibly challenging to figure out how to help them feel better, and when call a doctor if needed.
After awhile, I put together a six question checklist that has made the process so much easier. You’ll find it below, along with eight time-honored (and research supported) home remedies for stomach aches.
Please keep in mind that “Best Boo-Boo Kisser South Of Puckett’s Gas Station” is about as official as things get for me professionally. I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice, none of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA, and they are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. As I say in my full disclaimer, I’m just a mom sharing what’s worked for my family.
Ready to dive in? Good! Before we go over the checklist, I thought you might be wondering…
Why not use the pink stuff?
I’m talking about the sweet, ooey-gooey liquid most of us took as children, of course. I loved the flavor of that stuff, which is why I was surprised and saddened to learn that its active ingredient is bismuth, a heavy metal.
And we’re not just talking about a little bismuth. According to this Popular Science article:
“Most modern medicines are carefully synthesized organic molecules so potent that each pill contains only a few milligrams of the active ingredient. Pepto-Bismol is a fascinating exception, both because its active ingredient is bismuth, a heavy metal commonly used in shotgun pellets, and because there is a lot of it in each dose. So much, in fact, that I was able to extract a slug of bismuth metal from a pile of pink pills.” (emphasis mine)
Ironically, bismuth is known to cause some of the very symptoms it is used to treat – constipation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting – plus others such as seizures, depression, muscle weakness, uncontrollable flapping movements of the hands, and ringing of the ears. (Truven, American Academy of Physicians)
While these effects are generally associated with excessive dosages, I personally try to avoid heavy metals whenever possible – even in small amounts. Even more worrying to me is the thought that children who are drawn to the candy-like flavor of this medicine may consume more than is advised when a parent is distracted.
For those reasons, plus the fact that the pink stuff is loaded with artificial dyes and other ingredients I want to avoid, I use time honored (and research supported) home remedies when my kids have a tummy ache. First let’s go over the checklist, then the remedies that go with each complaint.
My 6-Question Stomach Ache Checklist
These questions were inspired by this wonderful article from Scholastic – I’ve matched them up with some home remedies I’ve found helpful along with a couple of additional questions.
Question #1: Does it hurt to go potty?
If so, it may be constipation. When this is the case, children sometimes complain that it hurts to go to the bathroom, or experience “Crampy pain that occurs an hour or two after a meal.” (WebMD, Haaf)
Question #2: Do you have diarrhea?
According to the Scholastic article, “Having the runs occasionally is common in kids. But when kids pass loose stools three or more times a day, it’s most often brought on by gastroenteritis, a viral infection of the stomach and intestines (a.k.a. a stomach bug). Certain meds (like antibiotics), food poisoning, bacterial infections, and parasites from contaminated food or water also bring on the runs. ‘Diarrhea is very common,’ says Dr. Rosen. ‘If it happens a lot, it could mean food allergies or a gastrointestinal condition like celiac disease.'”
Remedies That May Help: Probiotics, Acupressure, Activated Charcoal
Question #3: Are you tooting a lot?
This may indicate gas or bloating.
Remedies That May Help: Probiotics, Massage, Herbal Tea, Activated Charcoal
Question #4: Are you feeling upset or scared?
“Vague belly pain is something a lot of kids between the ages of 2 and 8 say they have when they need attention or they’re feeling stressed, says Dr. Kligler. ‘That’s the place where they experience worry.'” (Pevzener)
Remedies That May Help: Magnesium, Massage, Acupressure, Herbal Tea
Question #5: Do you feel like you might throw up?
If the answer is yes, there are several herbal teas that have been traditionally used for nausea.
Remedies That May Help: Herbal tea.
Question #6: Do you feel any burning? Where?
When I ask this, I’m checking to see if indigestion/heartburn might be an issue. I keep following with clarifying questions until I’m sure it’s not simply a sore throat. If I think it’s indigestion, I might try a digestive tonic.
Remedies That May Help: Digestive tonic such as these chamomile bitters or apple cider vinegar.
Home Remedies For Stomach Aches
Once I have a sense of what the issue might be, I pull out whatever remedy below might be appropriate. Here are my top choices.
May Be Helpful For: Constipation, Gas, Emotional Upset
According to Dr. Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, low magnesium levels can slow down the bowels and cause constipation. Not all forms of magnesium are absorbed well via the digestive tract, so I’ve written a guide to choosing magnesium supplements. Since it is well-absorbed through skin, another option for improving magnesium levels is through topical application like epsom salt baths or magnesium body butter.
Magnesium is also often referred to as the “Relaxation Mineral” and the “Ultimate Chill Pill” because of its ability to promote relaxation and help the body adapt to stress, which may be helpful if a stomach ache is due to emotional upset. (Nielsen et. al., Deans) It’s also vital to other functions such as detoxification, sleep, and the creation of proteins – click here to learn more about the benefits of magnesium.
May Be Helpful For: Constipation, Diarrhea, Gas/Bloating
According to Harvard Health Publications, researchers at King’s College in London reviewed 14 well constructed studies and found that probiotics reduced “‘gut transit time’ by 12.4 hours, increased the number of weekly bowel movements by 1.3, and helped soften stools, making them easier to pass.”
Several studies have also found probiotics to be helpful for infectious diarrhea / antibiotic associated diarrhea, and some studies related to IBS have concluded it is helpful for reducing gas and bloating. (Kligler et. al., Nobaek et. al.)
May Be Helpful For: Constipation, Emotional Upset, Gas
Pediatric acupuncturist Robin Green has created a wonderful tutorial that demonstrates the benefits of Tuina massage for helping the bowels move – plus tips on how to do it – here.
Also, here is a more general tutorial on how to massage constipated babies and children, and here is a tutorial on moving gas bubbles through the gut. Of course, massage is also helpful for soothing and calming children. I love to massage my little one’s hands or backs while we talk. (They giggle too much when I rub their feet, unfortunately.)
May be helpful for: Diarrhea, Food Poisoning
Activated charcoal has lots of uses, including teeth whitening and, of course, tummy aches. It’s used in emergency rooms to treat certain kinds of poisonings due to it’s ability to absorb toxins. (source) While serious situations need to be addressed by a doctor or local ER, activated charcoal is also often used at home for mild cases of food poisoning.
It’s also used “to reduce digestive flatulence and also to absorb harmful toxins, including infectious agents that cause diarrhea,” write James F. Balch, M.D., Mark Stengler N.M.D, and Robin Young Balch, N.M.D. (source)
I’ve personally found activated charcoal to be helpful for stomach bugs. It’s used in many water filters to remove bacteria and viruses, so it makes sense that it supports the body in flushing out what’s not supposed to be there. Interestingly, this study found that activated charcoal bound more strongly to e. coli than the normal (beneficial) bacteria found in the digestive tract.
In Prescription for Natural Cures: A Self-Care Guide For Treating Health Problems With Natural Remedies, which was written James F. Balch, M.D., Mark Stengler N.M.D, and Robin Young Balch, N.M.D, activated charcoal is recommended for food poisoning. Here’s what they suggest:
Take 3 capsules every two hours for three doses. Activated charcoal doses taken internally can help to absorb toxins from food poisoning. Charcoal works best when taken in the first stages of food poisoning (when you first realize you have food poisoning).”
That, of course, that a recommendation for adults, and for the brand I use three capsules would equal 1.5 grams (1500 milligrams) Although children are not discussed in the book, the Mayo Clinic suggests 1/4 to 1/2 an adult dose when recommending pediatric dosages for poisoning cases. (Keep in mind that the amount recommended in those cases is much higher – 25-50 grams for children. I’m just mentioning the ratio so that you have a starting point to discuss with your healthcare provider.)
Important not: This is not the charcoal you grill with, but rather a form that has processed with oxygen. I buy this brand because it’s made from coconut shells, which is more porous (meaning it adsorbs better) than hardwood derived activated charcoal, and is also considered environmentally friendly.
May Be Helpful For: Nausea, Emotional Upset, Gas
Chamomile – According to this analysis, “Chamomile is especially helpful in dispelling gas, soothing the stomach, and relaxing the muscles that move food through the intestines.” The researchers also noted that it may have a calming, sedative effect as well.
Ginger – According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “Children over 2 make take ginger to treat nausea, stomach cramping, and headaches. Ask your doctor to help you find the right dose.”
Peppermint – The University of Maryland Medical Center also states that “Peppermint (Mentha piperita), a popular flavoring for gum, toothpaste, and tea, is also used to soothe an upset stomach or to aid digestion. Because it has a calming and numbing effect, it has been used to treat headaches, skin irritations, anxiety associated with depression, nausea, diarrhea, menstrual cramps, and flatulence.” The article also cautions that peppermint should not be given to babies or small children.
Marshmallow Root – The Greek name for marshmallow root – althea – literally means “to heal.” It contains a polysaccharide that coats and protects irritated mucous membranes, and it’s amazing for sore throats, stomach aches, heartburn, skincare and more. I use it in my sore throat soother tea, which also contains herbs that are helpful for stomach aches.
Fennel Seeds – These seeds have been traditionally used for “various digestive problems including heartburn, intestinal gas, bloating, loss of appetite, and colic in infants.” (source)
Caraway Seed – According to WebMD, “Caraway is used for digestive problems including heartburn, bloating, gas, loss of appetite, and mild spasms of the stomach and intestines. ”
Yarrow – “Yarrow is an anti-inflammatory herb useful in the treatment of diarrhea, flatulence, gastrointestinal inflammation, and stomach cramps. This herb can reduce smooth muscle spasms, which makes it useful for certain gastrointestinal conditions. Yarrow is also a traditional stomach tonic and digestive aid.” (Balch)
Apple Cider Vinegar
May Be Helpful For: Indigestion
We’ve all heard that heartburn is caused by excess stomach acid. But after testing thousands of heartburn patients at his Tahoma Clinic, Jonathan Wright, M.D., says that’s not true in over 90% of cases. In fact, he says, heartburn is most often caused by low stomach acid.
Apple cider vinegar, which raises acid levels in the stomach, has long been used as a folk remedy for indigestion. Find out more about how it is used as a digestive aid here.
Warm Compress/Hot Water Bottle
May Be Helpful For: All Types Of Tummy Ache
Warmth sometimes has a soothing, relaxing effect, so a warm compress or hot water bottle might be worth trying.
May Be Helpful For: Constipation, Diarrhea, Emotional Upset
A book I’m reading right now – 12 Acupressure Points For Pediatric Sleep & Wellness – has protocols for both constipation and diarrhea that may be useful.
Though acupressure and acupuncture are not often embraced by western medicine, the World Health Organization has recognized acupuncture as an effective modality for a variety of conditions, including low back pain, neck pain, sciatica, knee pain, periarthritis of the shoulder, facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders), headache, dental pain, tempromandibular (TMJ) dysfunction, rheumatoid arthritis, induction of labor, morning sickness, nausea and vomiting, postoperative pain, stroke, essential hypertension, primary hypotension, renal colic, leucopenia, adverse reactions to radiation or chemotherapy, allergic rhinitis, including hay fever, biliary colic, depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke), acute bacillary dysentery, primary dysmenorrhea, acute epigastralgia, peptic ulcer and acute and chronic gastritis. (World Health Organization, emphasis mine)
Acupressure also has a long history of use as a calming technique.
When Should I See A Doctor?
Of course, there are times when it’s important to seek help. Here are some guidelines I found helpful:
“Some conditions, like ulcers, rarely strike kids before puberty, while others, like celiac disease (an immune system reaction to a protein in some grains), often hard-to-miss symptoms like prolonged diarrhea and weight loss. Dial your doctor if your child has any of the following symptoms:
Under six months old
• diarrhea (abnormally frequent, watery stools that may contain mucous or blood)
• extreme fussiness
• sunken fontanelle (soft spot)
• weight loss
• bloody or black stools
• abdominal pain that awakens child at night
• difficulty swallowing
• pain when urinating
• belly pain lasting longer than 24 hours
• vomiting that continues for four to six hours or longer
• vomiting dark green material
• symptoms of dehydration: decreased urination; dry skin, mouth and tongue (look for stickiness under the tongue); no tears; sunken eyes; greyish complexion; extreme drowsiness or lethargy” (source)