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Teach Your Child About the Digestive System

The human body is a marvelous machine composed of groups of organs we call organ systems. The digestive system performs some of the most amazing set of functions in the body. Teaching your child about the digestive system will help them understand how the food they eat is transformed into the energy they use everyday.

The digestive system consists of the nose, mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gall bladder, and colon (large intestine). Each of these highly specialized organs has its own job to do. Working together, they beak down food so that it can be used by the body.

The nose is included here because our sense of smell cues our brains and other organs to get ready for the food that is soon to be eaten. Powerful chemicals are released even before food touches our mouths! To a certain extent, our eyes do the same thing.

The mouth is far more complex than one might think. Digestion truly starts when food touches the mouth. Chewing mechanically breaks food down, while saliva begins the chemical process of digestion.

After swallowing, food travels through the esophagus where peristalsis (muscular contractions move the food to the stomach. There food is mixed with enzymes that further break down the food. When the food is broken down enough, it is no longer recognizable as food, but has great value, as it is ready to be further processed and absorbed in the small intestine.

The small intestine is over twenty feet long and consists of three segments- the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. By the action called peristalsis and the addition of enzymes from the liver and pancreas, food is broken down until it is ready to be absorbed. The duodenum does most of the breaking down, while the ileum and jejunum absorb the nutrients that will be used by the body.

The liver is a multi-purpose organ, but its function during digestion is to process the nutrients in the small intestine by secreting bile into the small intestine. The liver also helps with the digestion of fats and takes nutrients and turns them into important chemicals needed for other parts of the body to function.

The gallbladder stores bile and sends it to the duodenum when needed to help break down and absorb fats.

The pancreas also secretes enzymes into the duodenum where proteins, fats and carbohydrates are broken down. The pancreas also makes and releases insulin which metabolizes sugar in the blood stream.

The colon, or large intestine, is about six feet long. It connects the small intestine to the rectum and processes waste, or what’s left over after digestion. Wastes enter the colon in liquid form consisting of bacteria and food debris. Water is extracted and waste becomes more concentrated, forming a stool, or what we call feces. The colon empties the stool into the rectum when it becomes full and goes from the rectum to the anus and is expelled. What goes in must come out!


The process of digestion is quite fancy and would be a bit much for a very young child to take in. They do need to know that it’s important to chew food well so that it is properly broken down and that sometimes what we eat gives us a stomach ache. Young children instinctively know that what we expel when we go to the bathroom comes from the food and drink we consume.

What you can teach them about digestion at this age is that our bodies need good foods and plenty of water in order to work right and give us the energy we need for work and play. Encouraging your child to eat nutrient and fiber rich foods will help the whole process of digestion work more smoothly. Learning the basics of nutrition can start as soon as your youngster can sit up in a high chair!

Your child will no doubt come up with some questions about the workings of their body. Knowing the basics yourself will prepare you to give a simple but accurate explanation.

Main points to address:

  • Preschoolers can understand the basics of digestion put in simple terms they can relate to.
  • Teaching your child to eat nutrient dense and fiber rich foods will help them maintain good digestion.

Grades K-3rd

Young school age children understand the role digestion plays in giving us energy and keeping us well. They may not know the name and function of each organ in the digestive system, but they have a greater handle on cause and effect in general, and in the body in particular.

What your toddler took for granted as natural bodily functions have now become occasions for uproarious humor. Burping, pooping and passing gas are opportunities to amuse and amaze. Although this stage is normal and marks the beginning of greater understanding, it can be annoying!

Besides the humorous quality of digestive events, children this age are beginning to see how the parts of a system work together to accomplish a goal. The sure and steady teamwork of the digestive organs are indicative of the order and predictability of life.

Around this age children begin to notice the correlation between their emotions and disturbances in digestion. If they are nervous before a game, they may not want to eat. After suffering trauma or upset children this age may have an upset stomach or even throw up. This is a good time to teach your child how to relax and calm themselves. Persistent stomach or bowel upsets can signal anxiety in a child and the need to attend to their emotional health.

You may need to remind your child how important water is to the process of digestion. Constipation is never pleasant and can usually be avoided by eating enough fiber and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Studies have been done on brain function and amount of water needed to avoid “brain fog”. Your child will do better in school and during play if they are eating nutritious food and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.

Main points to address:

  • Young school age children are beginning to understand how organs work together.
  • Using bodily functions as a source of humor is normal at this age.
  • Make sure your child gets 3-5 glasses of water each day.

Grades 4-6th

Older children will likely learn the specific names and functions of their digestive organs in school. This may cause some embarrassment, which again is a normal developmental stage as your youngster starts to become more modest about their body. They may want to keep you out of the bathroom all of a sudden and become horrified if someone forgets to flush. This shows their growing awareness of the difference between their private self and their public self. Taking ownership of you body is a step to independence and self-reliance.

Junk food is everywhere and because active kids are always hungry, you may want to pack some healthy snacks for them to put in their pack. High fat and sugary foods will begin to take their toll in the form of overweight or poor complexion. Buy the healthiest foods you can afford and stress the importance of proper nutrition. As your child enters their preteen and teen years, hormonal changes may cause havoc if they are continually taxing their digestive system. They are old enough to understand the meaning of “You are what you eat.”

In summary, teaching your child about the functions of the digestive organs may save them a lifetime of trouble and poor health. Knowing the intricacy of the digestive system may help them realize the important job it does in keeping us energized and healthy.

Main points to address:

  • Children this age become more private about their bodily functions.
  • Buy the best foods and snack items you can afford.
  • Teaching your child about digestion may have positive long term effects on their health and well-being.

Resources that can help you in your venture include:

Posted in Health.

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