Morning stomach aches, hours spent in the bathroom and fluctuating between constipation and diarrhea can make life with irritable bowel syndrome a challenge for people of any age.
For kids and teenagers newly diagnosed with the syndrome, managing symptoms and finding ways to cope can be especially overwhelming.
But IBS is usually very manageable once those affected learn their triggers and work to avoid them, says Kristen Cares, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
“They’ll be able to live a normal, regular functioning life,” Dr. Cares explains. “They’ll figure out what their triggers are, and if not the triggers they learn how to cope with it so that it’s not as debilitating and may not be as frequent.”
Getting to that point is a process, though, and parents are encouraged to work with their child’s pediatrician and gastroenterologist to come up with the best course of action. For now, here’s a look at some of the top tips Dr. Cares recommends for children with IBS.
1. Start a journal
Have your child start and maintain a journal that details her symptoms, when she has them and what she ate the 24 hours before it happened. This should also include any stressors your child had that day. The goal is to identify what triggers the symptoms, Dr. Cares says.
“If it’s infrequent, you don’t necessarily have to keep a journal every single day but probably what they should do is when the event happens, think of the past day or day before,” she says. “It’s more of just really trying to analyze their day.”
The practice of journaling has some bonus benefits, too. “By them actually writing it down, they really focus on what’s going on in their lives and what may be triggering it,” Dr. Cares says.
2. Eat regular meals
Your child’s doctor may encourage her to follow a certain diet. If not, consider the simple rule of eating regular meals and trying not to miss any meals.
“Try to eat something, even if it’s getting a breakfast bar and running to school,” Dr. Cares recommends. “At least try to eat three meals a day.”
3. Avoid huge meals
Eating large portions all at once can make symptoms worse, Dr. Cares explains.
“A lot of my teenagers, what I hear is they miss eating all day … breakfast is too difficult, lunchtime they only have 30 minutes during school, then they come home and they have a huge meal and then they go to bed,” which is a recipe for problems, she says. “We’re trying to avoid huge meals at once. That usually exacerbates the symptoms.”
4. Avoid gassy foods
Gassy foods such as cabbage, beans and onions can cause bloating, which is already a problem for some people with IBS.
Caffeine should also be avoided, Dr. Cares says – though she recognizes this might be tricky for teens who enjoy spending time at Biggby or Starbucks.
5. Get help when you need it
In addition to learning their triggers, young people with IBS can sometimes benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to help them cope with symptoms or reduce the stress that could be exacerbating their symptoms.
“They meet with a specialist and try to find ways to cope with the pain and reduce the environmental stress,” Dr. Cares says. “Some kids are able to do it on their own. Sometimes kids need the additional help.”
Some children also benefit from seeing a dietitian to help them form an IBS-friendly diet.
“I work with a dietician in talking to the parents about that,” she says. “They usually do a certain time duration where they restrict certain foods and slowly reintroduce them.”
6. Stay in touch with your doctor
If a child is still struggling with severe IBS symptoms even after trying diet and lifestyle modifications, ask your gastroenterologist for help.
“If we work on diet and say it’s still not improving, or it’s so debilitating they’re missing school, to me that’s concerning and we may have to consider medication,” Dr. Cares says. “There are types of medications out there for abdominal pain called antispasmodics. It calms the intestines. There are also medications to help with constipation and/or diarrhea that can be given. In severe cases they may need a medication on a daily basis, which we discuss with the family to determine which type of medication is best suited for the child.”