HEALTH INSIGHTS

Short Bowel Syndrome in Children

By MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician 
 | 
August 18, 2017

Short Bowel Syndrome in Children

What is short bowel syndrome in children?

Short bowel syndrome is a group of problems. They happen to children who have had a significant part of their small intestine removed. This complex condition can be life-threatening in some babies and children.

The small intestine is a long, curving organ. It connects your stomach to your large intestine. Digestion starts in your stomach. But most digestion takes place in the small intestine. The small intestine also absorbs nutrients. Bowel refers to the small intestine and large intestine together.

Your child can have problems when half or more of his or her small intestine is taken out. He or she may not be able to absorb enough water, vitamins, and other nutrients. This can cause major nutritional problems and symptoms.

This can include a higher risk for short bowel syndrome. The more of the small intestine that’s removed, the greater your child’s chance for severe problems.

Different parts of the small intestine absorb different nutrients. If your child has a latter part of the small intestine taken out, he or she can have nutritional problems. This is because the first part of the small intestine cannot absorb all nutrients. Having the valve between the small and large intestine also makes a big difference in your child’s health. Some children with short bowel syndrome have also had part of their large intestine taken out. This leads to more problems.

Having short bowel syndrome from birth is very uncommon. The underlying cause of short bowel syndrome is often different between newborns and adults.

What causes short bowel syndrome in a child?

A problem your child is born with (congenital) can keep the small intestine from forming properly. This can cause short bowel syndrome in newborns.

Short bowel syndrome in infants can be caused by conditions that require part of the small intestine to be removed. Issues that permanently harm the small intestine can also cause symptoms of short bowel syndrome.

Some of the causes of this condition in infants can include:

  • Inflammation, ulcers, and dead cells in the intestines (necrotizing enterocolitis)
  • Blockage in a part of the small intestine called the ileus (meconium ileus). It happens when the first solid stools passed by a newborn are thicker and stickier than normal. 
  • Abdominal wall defects
  • Twisting of the intestines (volvulus)

Later in childhood, there are other common causes of short bowel syndrome. These can include inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract (Crohn’s disease) and intestinal trauma.

Which children are at risk for short bowel syndrome?

Your child is at greater risk for short bowel syndrome if he or she has certain health issues. These include necrotizing enterocolitis.

What are the symptoms of short bowel syndrome in a child?

Symptoms of short bowel syndrome in children include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Poor weight gain
  • Recurrent vomiting
  • Cramping
  • Heartburn
  • Fatigue
  • Food sensitivities

How is short bowel syndrome diagnosed in a child?

If your child has had a large part of his or her small intestine removed, his or her healthcare provider will look for short bowel syndrome. If your child has a history of surgery and symptoms of short bowel syndrome, he or she is likely to have the condition. Diagnosing small bowel syndrome may be trickier if your child is born with the condition.

Your child’s healthcare provider may rule out other causes of your symptoms. He or she will do an exam and ask about your child’s symptoms. Your child’s healthcare provider may also do other tests. These can include:

  • Basic blood tests, to check for infection, anemia, and electrolytes
  • Tests to check for nutritional deficiencies
  • Stool tests, to see if your child is absorbing enough fat
  • X-ray or CT scan of your child’s abdomen, to look for complications
  • Endoscopy, to look at your child’s esophagus, stomach, and early duodenum
  • Colonoscopy, to look at your child’s colon

How is short bowel syndrome treated in a child?

Treatment depends on how severe the condition is. It also depends on how long it’s been since your child had his or her small intestine removed.

After surgery, your child’s remaining intestine slowly adapts. Over time, it is able to absorb nutrients better. This process can take a year or two. This varies depending on how much and what part of your child’s small intestine was taken out.

Your child will likely have parenteral feedings after surgery. This means that he or she won’t eat anything. Instead, he or she will get nutrients through a tube placed in the vein.

As your child recovers, his or her healthcare provider may slowly start enteral feedings. This gives liquid nutrition directly to your child’s stomach or small intestine through a feeding tube. Over time, your child’s healthcare provider will try to increase the enteral feedings and decrease the parenteral feedings.

Your child’s healthcare provider may eventually move him or her to oral feedings. He or she will need to eat small meals often. He or she will also need to avoid foods that are high in simple carbohydrates, such as juices.

Some people with severe short bowel syndrome will need long-term parenteral nutrition. This can sometimes cause problems. If this happens, your child may need a small intestine transplantation. Or your child’s healthcare provider may suggest a non-transplantation surgery. This can improve how your child absorbs nutrients.

Other treatments for short bowel syndrome include:

  • H2 blockers. These are medicines to decrease stomach secretions.
  • Medicines to treat diarrhea
  • Extra nutritional supplements
  • Electrolyte solutions. Your child may take these by mouth (orally) or through an IV (intravenous line).
  • Medicines to prevent liver damage. These are given to children on parenteral nutrition.
  • Medicines to help the small intestine adapt

What are the possible complications of short bowel syndrome in a child?

This condition can cause serious issues. Your child’s healthcare provider will watch for complications. He or she will also try to treat any problems early on.

If problems aren’t treated well, your child can have diarrhea. This can cause dehydration, weight loss, and malnutrition. It may even lead to death.

Other complications can include:

  • Liver disease. This can happen from long-term use of parenteral nutrition. In rare cases, this may lead to a liver transplant.
  • Your child may need to have his or her gallbladder removed.
  • Bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine. This can make your child’s symptoms of short bowel syndrome worse.
  • Nutrient deficiencies. Specific problems depend on which nutrients are low. For instance, some children show early bone loss. This is because of poor absorption of calcium and other nutrients.
  • Kidney stones. This is caused by extra oxalate in your child’s urine.

Follow your child’s healthcare provider’s orders about diet and medicines. Doing so will reduce your child’s risk for problems.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call your child’s healthcare provider if he or she has severe diarrhea or vomiting. Your child may need to go to the hospital to get IV fluids to rehydrate. You should also call your child’s healthcare provider if he or she has any new symptoms.

Your child’s care may be complex. It may feel overwhelming. It’s important to talk with your healthcare providers if you are not able to cope with the stress of caregiving.  They will help you find support and other resources.

Key points about short bowel syndrome in children

  • Short bowel syndrome is a group of problems. They happen to children who have had a significant part of their small intestine removed.
  • The main symptoms of short bowel syndrome in children include diarrhea and failure to gain weight.
  • After surgery, your child will likely get nutrients through a vein. This is called parenteral nutrition. Then your child will likely get liquid nutrition directly to the stomach or small intestine through a feeding tube. Eventually, your child may be able to eat normally.
  • Short bowel syndrome can cause problems. These are more likely in children who need long-term parenteral nutrition. Your child may need a small intestine transplant.
  • Your child’s care may seem overwhelming. You should talk to your healthcare providers if you are not able to cope with the stress of caregiving.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Updated:  

August 18, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Matz, Jen