Managing IBS symptoms can be difficult for anyone. This Mother's Day, let's hear the stories of mothers suffering from IBS and understand the unique hurdles this chronic condition brings to their lives.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal condition associated with excessive and recurrent abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, or constipation. It significantly impairs a person's quality of life by affecting psychological functioning, work, and social life. The exact cause of IBS is not fully understood, but it is thought to involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Researchers have designed the low-FODMAP diet to help people with IBS have better control over their symptoms by limiting certain foods. FODMAPs are fermentable oligosaccharides, di-saccharides, mono-saccharides, and polyols commonly found in foods such as bananas, wheat, garlic, and onions.
Women of childbearing age experience the highest prevalence of IBS, with approximately 1 in 10 women reporting IBS symptoms (1, 2). There is also some evidence to suggest that IBS may be more common among mothers than among women who have not had children. This may be due in part to hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the stress and sleep deprivation that often accompany motherhood.
Although the debilitating effects of IBS on daily life are well-documented, the mental, social, and parenting impacts of IBS experienced by mothers, especially those of young school-age children, are rarely reported.
A 2020 study qualitatively assessed the experiences of mothers suffering from IBS and highlighted their parenting struggles and concerns (3). Some observations are summarized here.
IBS gets in the way of being a good mom
Mothers with IBS may feel torn between their children and their symptoms during a flare-up, leading to guilt for not being the type of mom they want to be. IBS symptoms can interfere with active playtime, causing mothers to worry that their children think they are avoiding them. Sometimes, the pain in their stomach is so intense that they even avoid cuddling with their little ones. It can be challenging to care for their children when they are struggling to care for themselves.
Missing important family events
The impact of being isolated from family due to an inability to function, walk around, sit up, or move is most severely felt during family vacations. Mothers report having to stay inside and being unable to join their family, experiencing difficulty planning family trips, and sometimes even canceling vacations at the last minute due to a bad IBS flare-up. Some mothers believe that their IBS also causes their children to miss out on important events such as their birthdays. Young children are often unable to understand the cancellations, and such lost family moments are a great source of pain.
Children should not have to bear the burden of IBS
Mothers with IBS carry a psychological burden that affects their children. When IBS flares up, children witness their mothers' symptoms and worry about their health. Mothers also worry about the impact of their symptoms on their children, fearing that they may have an accident while outside the house and embarrass their children. Some mothers even feel guilty when their children start caring for them during severe episodes. The sight of their mothers hunched up in pain is not a pleasant one for young minds, and studies show that children's pain-coping skills may be influenced by observing a parent in abdominal pain.
In an attempt to model wellness behavior, some mothers intentionally spend time away from their children during flares. However, they are often unsure about how to best explain their symptoms to their children to prevent them from worrying or engaging in caretaking behavior. These mothers desire to explain IBS symptoms to their children in a way that would keep them from worrying.
Mothers worry that children will develop IBS, which will impact their future
These mothers often worry about the possibility that their children may develop IBS themselves. Those with a family history of IBS, acid reflux, and ulcers believe with even greater certainty that their children carry a genetic risk for IBS because they have it themselves. This anxiety is strongest when visiting the pediatrician, and some of them are just "waiting" for a diagnosis. Many mothers say they would feel responsible or at "fault" if their child did develop IBS. The common sentiment among IBS mothers is "I would not want her to turn into me."
Moreover, having experienced the crippling nature of the disorder firsthand, mothers anticipate ways that IBS may negatively impact their children's future nutritional health, social life, and employment. This concern makes them agonize over even the smallest gastrointestinal upsets, which are quite common in young children. They find themselves continuously questioning their children to find out if their tummy hurts.
Perhaps grounded in the assumption that they need to start working to safeguard their children's health now, they painstakingly try to optimize their children's diets. Some even put their children on the same IBS-friendly diet that they have developed for themselves. While optimizing their kids' gut health by providing them with a wide range of fruits and veggies, healthy foods, and whole grains is a great choice that some make, restrictive choices such as completely eliminating foods that they believe have caused their own IBS flares, or unnecessarily depriving their kids of their own "trigger foods," can be a cause for concern. Such actions may lead to other problems, such as disordered eating later in childhood and adolescence.
Thus, the unpredictability of IBS symptoms coupled with how their IBS impacts their children is what greatly distresses these mothers and represents a significant burden in their daily lives.
While there is currently no cure for IBS, there are a number of treatment options available that can help manage symptoms. These may include dietary changes such as adopting the low-FODMAP diet, stress management techniques, and medication. If you are a mother experiencing symptoms of IBS, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider about your treatment options.
1. Pan, C.H., et al, Trends in Irritable Bowel Syndrome Incidence among Taiwanese Adults during 2003–2013: A Population-Based Study of Sex and Age Differences. PLoS ONE 2016, 11, e0166922.
2. Ruigomez, A., et al, One-year follow-up of newly diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome patients. Aliment. Pharmacol. Ther. 1999, 13, 1097–1102.
3. Murphy LK, van Diggelen TR, Levy RL, Palermo TM. Understanding the Psychosocial and Parenting Needs of Mothers with Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Young Children. Children (Basel). 2020 Aug 7;7(8):93.