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Could my 3-year-old be experiencing “growing pains?
Q: Once or twice a month, my 3-year-old daughter wakes up in the middle of the night complaining that her leg hurts. The spot that hurts varies; it could be her shin or her thigh, etc. She asks us to rub the part that hurts and eventually drops back off to sleep, but may wake up several more times. I can remember getting "growing pains" when I was 12 or so. Could that be what's going on here, or is she too young for growing pains?
A: Jeanne, it does sound like your daughter has “growing pains.” About one in four children get them, usually during periods of rapid growth from 3-5 years of age and 8-12 years of age. You’ve probably noticed how 2-year-olds have short, chubby legs and tend to be awkward running, climbing and jumping; then by 5 years old, their legs are long and wiry, and they’re agile runners and climbers. There’s a lot of growing and muscle activity during those years.

Growing pains are caused by muscle cramps in the calves, thighs and feet, usually at night after a particularly active day. In addition, any kind of stress your daughter may be feeling—such as a new preschool or the birth of a younger sibling—can make the pain feel more intense.

You’re doing the right thing by rubbing her legs and giving her extra attention. You can also put a heating pad on her legs, try to massage or stretch the leg muscles, and give her children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Be sure to reassure her that this is a sign that she’s growing up to be a “big girl” and that it’ll get better soon.

Although your daughter’s leg pains are probably nothing to worry about, it’s good to talk to your pediatrician about it. Rarely, leg pains can be a sign of a medical problem, but the symptoms tend to be different: persistent and severe pain in her legs; swelling, warmth and redness of her joints or skin; limping or leg weakness; fever, rash, or loss of appetite. If your daughter has any of these symptoms, the doctor might want to do an x-ray or blood test.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician