Could Your Baby's Abdominal Pain Be Intussusception?

Posted on: 2 June 2022

Tummy issues can cause discomfort for babies and a lot of worry for parents. The cause of your little one's abdominal pain may be as simple as gas or it could indicate a viral or bacterial infection in their digestive tract. In rare cases, a segment of the small intestine can fold and slip inside the adjacent portion, like a telescope. This telescoping of the intestine is called intussusception. An enfolding or prolapse of the intestine can cause a blockage, resulting in abdominal pain. 


Intussusception rarely affects newborns but may present itself in babies as young as 2 months old. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 60 percent of cases occur between the ages of 2 months and 1 year. The prevalence declines around 18 months old. Boys are more likely to develop an intussusception than girls.  


Signs of intussusception can come on suddenly. Episodes of acute abdominal pain may cause your baby to cry loudly and draw their knees to their chest. The pain seems to go away, then recur every 15 to 20 minutes. The duration of the painful attacks may increase over time. Some babies produce stool mixed with blood and mucous that has a dark, jelly-like appearance. Other possible symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy. It may be possible to feel a lump in the baby's abdomen depending on where the blockage occurs. Contact your baby's doctor right away if your child's symptoms indicate a possible intussusception.


Intussusception is not life-threatening when treated. If left untreated, the patient can develop complications. The segment of the intestine that has become trapped may suffer from a decreased blood supply. If the blood supply to the prolapsed portion of the intestine becomes cut off, the tissue dies and may tear, causing a perforation. A bowel perforation can result in an abdominal infection called peritonitis. Peritonitis can be life-threatening. Symptoms include fever, abdominal swelling, and vomiting. A baby with peritonitis may go into shock and lose consciousness, requiring immediate medical attention. 


Intussusception is typically treated by giving the baby an enema, which corrects the problem in most cases. Water or air flows into a tube inserted in the rectum, which clears the blockage and forces the enfolded section of the intestine to slide out. The intussusception may recur within 24 hours and require additional treatment. If the enema treatment does not clear the blockage or fix the intussusception, surgery may be needed to manipulate the prolapsed segment into the proper position or remove damaged tissue and repair the segment of the intestine.  

Contact your child's doctor for more information.