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What You Should Know About Diarrhea in Kids

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As a parent, it’s important to keep track of your child’s bowel behavior so you can remain informed in case there is an issue. You need to know what’s a normal frequency for your child, as most babies tend to go quite often, especially after every feeding.

In fact, newborns can average around 12 diaper changes in a 24-hour period.1 On top of that, the stool’s consistency and color vary depending on what your baby eats.2 Breast milk contains a natural laxative, so breastfed babies poop more often than formula-fed babies, and their stool is typically soft.3

On the other hand, infant formula is more difficult for babies to digest,4 which makes their poop a little bit firmer. Once your baby starts eating solid food, you’ll notice that the stool may change its color depending on your child’s diet.5

Common Forms of Diarrhea in Children

Generally, having occasional loose stools is nothing to worry about. However, if your child has at least three loose stools within a day, it could possibly be diarrhea.

Acute diarrhea can suddenly occur and even last for several weeks,6 it’s important to know that if this condition persists for four weeks, even if it comes and goes, it is classified as chronic diarrhea.7

If your child is 1 to 3 years old, you may encounter toddler’s diarrhea. According to the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN):8

“Toddler’s diarrhea is also known as chronic nonspecific diarrhea of childhood, and it affects children from 6 months to 5 years of age. Children with toddler’s diarrhea will have three to 20 loose stools per day.

These stools typically occur during the day when the child is awake and sometimes immediately after eating … Toddler’s diarrhea is not considered a disease, and children with this condition will typically get better on their own by school age.”

While bouts of diarrhea can distress even the most unflappable parents, this condition typically doesn’t post a major health risk to children, as long as they doesn’t get dehydrated.

What Causes Diarrhea in Children?

There is a long list of possibilities why your child has diarrhea, which include:9,10

Viral infection — It is the leading cause of diarrhea in children. Several viruses, such as rotavirus, calicivirus, adenovirus, astrovirus and influenza, can be responsible for diarrhea, as well as abdominal pain, fever, chills and vomiting. Diarrhea caused by a viral infection usually lasts several days to two weeks, regardless of the treatment.11

Bacterial infection — Certain types of bacteria like E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and staphylococcus can cause diarrhea. If your child has severe diarrhea from bacterial infection, the symptoms may include blood in the stool, fever and cramps.

Parasitic infection — Microscopic parasites like giardia live in the bowel, and can be a culprit in episodes of diarrhea. Symptoms of an infection due to parasites usually include greasy stools, bloating and gas.

Antibiotics — Suffering from diarrhea after a course of antibiotics is common since it kills both good and bad bacteria in the large intestine.

Food allergy — It occurs when your child’s immune system responds to harmless food proteins. The reaction can be mild or severe, which can include diarrhea, rashes, hives and breathing difficulty. The most common food allergens are milk and other dairy products, eggs, wheat, soy, nuts and shellfish.

Sweetened drinks — Consuming excessive sweetened drinks that are high in fructose and contain sorbitol can upset your child’s stomach.

Food intolerance — Unlike allergies, intolerance to food doesn’t involve the immune system. For instance, lactose intolerant children have difficulty digesting lactose, a sugar in milk and other dairy products. This can cause gas, bloating, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

How to Stop Diarrhea in Kids

Medications are rarely recommended, as diarrhea can be treated through home care. Here are some strategies you should remember:12

  • Give your child plenty of fluids, such as pure water and/or bone broths — During episodes of diarrhea, your child’s body loses fluids and electrolytes, which are important for normal body function.13
  • Do not let your child drink sweetened beverages — Sodas, processed fruit juices and energy drinks contain high amounts of sugar, which draws water into the large intestine and worsens diarrhea.14
  • Try the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and dry toast) — It can help firm up the stool. Bananas are also high in potassium and can help restore nutrients your child has lost due to diarrhea and vomiting.15 However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children return to a normal diet within 24 hours, as the BRAT diet doesn’t provide enough nutrients to aid in recovery.
  • Nourish his body with nutritious whole foods — Within 24 hours of falling ill, provide you child with whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products like grass-fed yogurt. This will provide your child’s body with vital nutrients to optimize recovery.
  • Give him probiotic-rich foods — Probiotics foods, such as fermented vegetables, sauerkraut and kimchi contain good bacteria that help the body fight off infections and other causes of diarrhea. You can also try giving them a high-quality probiotic supplement that’s specifically formulated for children.16,17

How to Protect Your Child From Diarrhea

Diarrhea in children is often caused by microorganisms that are easily transmitted from hand to mouth. For instance, children can catch a diarrhea-causing infection from putting their fingers in their mouth after touching a contaminated surface, such as a toy or the toilet.18 The best defense against infection-related diarrhea is to wash your children’s hands properly, and teach them the art of hand washing when they are old enough.19

This illness can clear up in a few days when treated properly, but diarrhea can become a very serious problem if your child becomes severely dehydrated.

When to Call Your Doctor

If your child is 3 months old or younger and has diarrhea, call your doctor immediately. Babies over 3 months must be monitored for 24 hours. If your baby’s condition doesn’t improve or is getting worse, contact your doctor. Other symptoms that require immediate medical attention include:20,21,22,23

Signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, crying without tears, infrequent urination (not passing urine for six hours or longer) and a darker urine

Black or tarry stool or blood in the stool

Vomiting multiple times

Weakness

Sunken eyes

Severe diarrhea (more than eight stools in the last eight hours)

High fever — 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celsius) or higher in 3- to 6-month-old babies; 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius) or higher for children 6 months or older.

(If your baby is less than 3 months old has a temperature that reaches 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius, call your doctor immediately to check for serious infection or disease.)


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