Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can affect both children and adults. In children, it can show no signs of disease or damage within the digestive tract. Depending on the sensitivity of a child’s gut, it can cause moderate to severe abdominal pain.

IBS is a multifaceted, chronic condition that can cause severe discomfort throughout the gastrointestinal system, leading to pain, diarrhea, constipation, and gas.

There are many similarities between IBS in adults and children, but there are important differences. This article explores the causes, symptoms, and treatments for this condition.

IBS involves a combination of symptoms. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, it occurs when there are issues in the working relationship between the brain and gut. This makes IBS a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. IBS is a chronic condition, which means there is currently no known cure.

IBS affects around 5% of 4–18-year-olds. At present, it is unclear whether or not it affects males and females equally.

IBS has links to a range of general symptoms, including:

  • abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • bloating

IBS in children can appear without any detectable signs of harm to the digestive tract or signs of disease.

Experts classify IBS in children according to the types of changes or abnormalities in their bowel habits:

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C): When more than one-quarter of stools are firm or very hard and less than one-quarter are watery or very loose.
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D): When more than one-quarter of stools are watery or very loose and less than one-quarter are firm or very hard.
  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M): When more than one-quarter of stools are watery or very loose and more than one-quarter are firm or very hard.
  • IBS unsubtyped (IBS-U): When less than one-quarter of stools are watery or very loose and less than one-quarter are firm or very hard.

Researchers have yet to establish a single specific cause for IBS.

The potential reasons a child may experience the pain and related symptoms of IBS include:

  • a history of gastroenteritis
  • food allergies
  • consumption of different carbohydrates and fats
  • psychological factors, including stress, worry, anxiety, and depression

The following are factors that may make it more likely for a child to develop IBS:

  • a family history of IBS
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • prior history of gastrointestinal infections
  • allergies, including food allergies

Abdominal pain is one of the main IBS symptoms in children.

They may also experience the following:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • cramping
  • the need for an urgent bowel movement
  • gas
  • bloating
  • mucus in the stool
  • vomiting
  • nausea

A doctor or healthcare professional may use the following methods to diagnose IBS in children:

  • a complete physical examination
  • taking a thorough medical history
  • medical tests analyzing urine, stool samples, the child’s breath, and medical imaging of the abdomen and digestive tract

Treatment for IBS in children typically involves interactions between the child, parent and caregiver, and doctor. The right medical care can help a family manage a child’s symptoms for a better quality of life. In some instances, children may outgrow IBS, with most experiencing fewer symptoms with around 24 months of follow-up care.

The different treatments for childhood IBS include:

  • dietary changes
  • medications
  • probiotics
  • stress management

Because abdominal pain is such an important symptom in children with IBS, some clinicians recommend:

  • starting treatment with a pain reliever
  • addressing anxiety through medication, therapy, or a combination of the two
  • using laxatives for constipation
  • using antibiotics for treating underlying infections
  • using probiotics to improve digestive health


While medication-focused treatment is widespread, there is limited supporting data. The following are some medication types doctors often use to treat IBS in children:

  • motility agents, which help with movement within the digestive system
  • antidepressants
  • anti-reflux agents
  • antihistamines
  • antispasmodics, which are medications to relax the muscles of the digestive system


While experts may recommend a high fiber diet for adults with IBS, they may not recommend the same for children due to the excess gas and bloating that can occur.

Many people use complementary and alternative therapies to treat IBS. Small studies show peppermint oil may help reduce pain due partly to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.

Any caregivers who wish to encourage dietary changes or supplements should discuss them with their child’s doctor first.

Signs that it is time to consult a doctor regarding possible IBS in children include:

  • sudden changes in a child’s bowel movements
  • pain that alleviates or worsens after a bowel movement
  • pain in the abdomen at least 4 days per month
  • discomfort around bowel movements
  • visible changes to a child’s stools
  • weight loss alongside changes in bowel movements

Speaking with a doctor and receiving a confirmed diagnosis of IBS can help children and their families take necessary measures to reduce the social, emotional, and psychological effects of IBS.

Below, we look at some common questions relating to IBS in children.

How do I know if my child has IBS?

Parents or caregivers may only be able to tell if a child has IBS by keeping note of symptoms and contacting a physician for a thorough examination. Symptoms may include:

  • recurring episodes of stomach pain
  • sudden changes in a child’s bowel habits
  • cramping, bloating, and gas
  • nausea
  • urgent bowel movements
  • change in eating habits

What do you give a child with IBS?

If a parent or caregiver is looking to give their child pain relievers, they should speak with a doctor or healthcare professional who can offer the most appropriate advice.

At what age do doctors diagnose IBS?

Doctors diagnose IBS when a child meets the diagnostic criteria for IBS in children. No age limit is necessary. If a child shows IBS symptoms, their parent or caregiver should consider contacting a doctor for an examination, regardless of their age.

IBS in children can be a serious, multifaceted condition. A doctor or healthcare professional should carry out the necessary examinations to diagnose the child. This can involve a physical examination and analyzing stool and urine samples.

This condition is similar to IBS in adults in many ways, but children may predominantly experience pain. Treatment options differ, and a person should follow a doctor’s advice accordingly.