With carbohydrates and sugars two of the big triggers for food reactions in children that can impact their bowels; Easter is the perfect time to remind parents of the causes and symptoms.

Carbohydrates from wheat products and complex sugars can be triggers for diarrhoea in children. In most cases this is because their small bowel doesn’t have enough of the digestive enzymes that break these large molecules into simple sugars that can then be absorbed into the blood stream.

Instead, the carbohydrates and complex sugars travel to the colon where they come into contact with the normal bacteria present.

This starts a fermentation process and the production of gas, along with water secretions into the bowel, causing acidic diarrhoea.

Sugars such as fructose (from fruit) and lactose (from milk), non-soluble sugars in sugar-free products like gum, and wheat products can all trigger diarrhoea in children.

Often, simply addressing the amount of chocolates, sweets, soft drink and cordial, fruit and sweet drinks a child consumes can stop diarrhoea.

A child’s small bowel simply doesn’t have the capacity to absorb too much fruit sugar, and children should be encouraged to eat no more than two pieces of whole fruit a day, and avoid drinking fruit juice.

 Lactose intolerance often manifests in later childhood, when the body’s genetic switch turns off production of the lactose-digesting enzyme.

It’s interesting to realise that lactose intolerance is the way nature intended, with all animals, including humans, programmed to stop producing the enzyme that breaks down lactose as their need for their mother’s milk stops. Any adults who can digest lactose carry genetic mutations that prevent this natural process from occurring.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance are triggered by lactose-containing dairy products, such as milk, cream and ice cream, and they can include abdominal cramps, wind and diarrhoea one to two hours after a meal.

If your child is found to be lactose intolerant, foods with lactose should be substituted with calcium-rich foods with no or low lactose, such as lactose-free milk, soy milk, acidophilus yogurt and block cheese. Even though yoghurt and cheese are made from milk, the bacteria in the cheese and yoghurt cultures consume the lactose during production.

Children with suspected carbohydrate or sugar intolerances can be assessed by non-invasive stool (poo) testing and breath testing.

Wheat, too, can cause symptoms, ranging from poor absorption of the wheat starches (carbohydrates) in the small bowel and their subsequent fermentation in the colon  (triggering symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome), to significant gut damage triggered by wheat in coeliac disease.

Any child (or adult) who has gastrointestinal symptoms after consuming wheat products should see their doctor for assessment. At a minimum, they require blood testing to assess for possible coeliac disease.

If your child is affected by diarrhoea, excessive wind or constipation a good first port of call is the National Continence Helpline (1800 33 00 66), which is staffed by continence nurses, including paediatric continence nurses, 8am to 8pm EST weekdays.

This article was prepared with the assistance of Brisbane Royal Children’s Hospital paediatric gastroenterologist Dr Francis Connor.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
  • Very informative and a worthwhile read.


  • My kids didn’t get heaps of chocolate for Easter, on the occasion they did over do it, they usually vomiited it all up before it made it to the bowels to cause diarrhoea


  • Yes! That’s interesting! Thanks for sharing this!


  • My son was intolerant as a baby. Got over it by 6 months old.


  • This is quite important information, the key to most things is balance, dont buy too much and they cannot at too much!

    • I agree wholeheartedly. But there are, unfortunately some children who react to just a small amount of certain foods.


  • Useful information – I found out breath tests can also be posted!


  • Some babies are lactose intolerant from birth Unfortunately not all Mums are able to breastfeed at all. Imagine how difficult it used to be 30 years ago before lactose free formulas were introduced. Think of the Mums who had to do all cooking from scratch, and it was very difficult to make tasty treats such as cakes and biscuits. No milk or butter. Most margarines have some dairy in them. No lactose free cheese, milk, cream, yoghurt or icecream. I know a lady who is lactose intolerant and diabetic = a very strict diet. Her sister is also lactose intolerant to the extent that she has to make sure her food doesn’t come into contact with any dairy.

    • I agree. It’s tough enough just caring for a baby, but one with lactose intolerance? Now that would be very, very tough going.


  • Maria, thankyou for your article. It was very interesting reading.


  • It took ages to diagnose my daughter with lactose intolerance when she was a baby. Thank goodness out nurse suggested it could be the reason for her tummy problems at 11 months and she improved amazingly overnight.


  • very interesting and helpful article.
    too much sugar is bad enough for adults but way more so for yougens.
    thanx for sharing.


  • WOW…this is the first time that i have read anything like this.
    My eldest daughter could not have chocolate at all when she was little. If she had a single slice she would within 5mins have a very runny bowel motion and her backside would bleed. it was horrible. So many people would give her chocolate without my permission and then be shocked when all hell would break out. Thankfully she grew out of it and was fine by the time shew as 4

    • Wow, that’s a pretty acute reaction. Glad to hear she grew out of it!


  • This is interesting. My son sometimes has problems with his bowel movements and I must keep a closer eye on what he has eaten beforehand.

    • That’s great advice. In fact it’s the advice our continence nurses on the Helpline who deal with kids say. Keep a record of their toileting behaviours/habits and anything that they ate that may have contributed, so they have a sense of what may be causing problems.


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