They grow up so fast. Your child is now a toddler, walking, talking, and eating basically everything you do. While it can be fun – as well as convenient – to feed your child whatever you eat, you should know that a child is not a small adult. When it comes to digestion, there are significant differences. And as a parent, you need to be aware of toddler digestive problems so that you can support their digestion the right way.
A child's digestive system may not be fully developed
The tummy of your little one is not the same as an adult’s stomach. A complex interplay of factors such as food habits, genes, sex, state of health, age and gut health contribute to the maturity of your child’s digestive system1.
You might hear your child say, “My tummy hurts.” While the cause of stomachaches can be a variety of things, this could be a sign that your child’s sensitive and delicate tummy is still developing. For example, many children aren't able to completely digest the important nutrients in formula because the enzymes that break them down are not yet fully active. This results in digestive discomfort.
Common toddler digestive problems
1. Sensitivity to lactose
Humans have the ability to digest the lactose in milk, but this ability to digest lactose can reduce in some children as they grow older2. Lactose sensitivity occurs when the small intestine does not create enough lactase, a digestive enzyme. In some cases, a person’s body produces less of the enzyme as they grow up13.
Children with digestive issues may experience flatulence or gassiness, abdominal pain and diarrhea. In such cases, gas is produced when microbes in the digestive system ferment excess or undigested lactose9.
2. Protein malabsorption
Proteins are large, complex nutrients that are difficult to digest. At times, protein malabsorption may also occur due to disruption in the digestive process10. As a result, some children may shy away from milk when they experience digestive discomfort such as gassiness, bloating, tummy aches and watery stools2,11.
Supporting children's digestion
This is a crucial time in your child’s development, and milk or dairy foods are important food sources for children. However, if kids avoid these due to digestive discomfort, they can lose out on proteins, lactose and other nutrients that are important for their growth and development11,12.
Parents play a key role in supporting good digestion by taking note of the symptoms that their kids experience. Should you notice that your child has toddler digestive problems like gassiness or digestive discomfort, you can consult your pediatrician to find the root cause.
Parents may also want to consider low lactose products and those with partially hydrolyzed proteins that are easy on children’s digestion. Digestive discomfort symptoms may be avoided when lactose is taken in small amounts at a time2. And in the case of protein malabsorption, partially hydrolyzed proteins are easier to digest or absorb10.
To support your child’s nutrition, look for these nutrients in your child’s milk:
Partially hydrolyzed protein (PHP)
In children’s early years, proteins are crucial in tissue building and maintenance. Given their critical roles, some proteins in formula milk are made so that they are easy-to-digest and easy-to-absorb. These partially hydrolyzed proteins (PHP) can help the delicate tummy of your child so that it doesn’t have to work so hard to break down nutrients. PHP are smaller proteins and help for easy digestion and absorption.
Some children’s tummies may have difficulty digesting lactose. Nonetheless, lactose is an important nutrient because it supports your child’s development.
How is that so? Lactose is broken down into glucose and galactose to be utilized by the body. Glucose acts as the principal metabolic fuel and provides sustained energy for overall growth and development.
Milk with reduced lactose makes it easier for your child to digest the lactose they need.
Foods like yogurt and reduced lactose milk may also be given to children who have difficulty digesting lactose. The bacteria in yogurt can help in lactose digestion while milk with reduced lactose can help to lessen the work your child’s tummy needs to do to digest lactose.
Remember, your child is not a small adult. Children have unique nutritional needs, especially when it comes to sensitive tummies. If you face toddler digestive problems as described above, it may be high time to manage their diet with the right nutrition so that you can continue to support their rapid growth.
- Merchant HA, Liu F, Gul MO, Basit AW. Age-mediated changes in the gastrointestinal tract. Available at http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1542469/1/Orlu%20Gul_Age-mediated%20changes%2.... Accessed on 28 November 2017.
- Misselwitz B, Pohl D, Frühauf H, Fried M, Vavricka SR, Fox M. Lactose malabsorption and intolerance: pathogenesis, diagnosis and treatment. United European Gastroenterology Journal. 2013;1(3):151-9.
- Merck Manuals. Gas. Home health handbook. Available at http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/digestive_disorders/symptoms_of_digesti.... Downloaded 27Feb2015.
- Yang Y, He M, Cui H, Bian L, Wang Z. The prevalence of lactase deficiency and lactose intolerance in Chinese children of different ages. Chin Med J (Engl). 2000 Dec;113(12):1129-32.
- Tadesse K1, Leung DT, Yuen RC. The status of lactose absorption in Hong Kong Chinese children. Acta Paediatr. 1992 Aug;81(8):598-600.
- Kim, K. H., Kang, S. B., & Yoon, S. S. Distributions and Incidences of Elementary School Children with Lactose Intolerance Symptoms after Drinking Milk in Korea. 한국축산식품학회지.2011; 31(6), 893-898.
- Wong FHW, Yeung CY, Tam AYC, Fung KW. Lactose Malabsorption by Breath H2 Test in Chinese Children. HK J Paediatr (New Series) 1999;4:1015.
- Swagerty DL Jr, Walling AD, Klein RM. Lactose intolerance. Am Fam Physician. 2002 May 1;65(9):1845-50.
- Neu J. Overview of Digestion and Absorption. Gastroenterology and Nutrition. London: Elsevier Health Sciences. 2012:3-11.
- Keller J, Layer P. The pathophysiology of malabsorption. Visceral Medicine. 2014;30(3):150-4.
- Jackson KA, Savaiano DA. Lactose maldigestion, calcium intake and osteoporosis in African-, Asian-, and Hispanic-Americans. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2001;20(2):198S-207S.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Protein. Available at http://www.fda.gov/nutritioneducation . Accessed on 18 October 2017.
- Everyday Health. Can You Become Lactose Intolerant Later in Life? Available at https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/can-you-develop-lactose-intolerance-... . Accessed on 18 December 2020