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 also need to know what’s a normal frequency for your child, as most breastfed babies tend to go quite often, especially after every feeding.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.5 Once your baby starts eating solid food, you’ll notice that the stool may change its color and texture depending on your child’s diet.6
Common Forms of Diarrhea in Children
Generally, having occasional loose stools is nothing to worry about.6 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.8 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.9
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):10
“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 don’t get dehydrated.
What Causes an Infant or Child to Suffer From Diarrhea?
There is a long list of possibilities why your child has diarrhea, which include:
Viral infection — It’s the leading cause of diarrhea in children.
Rotavirus, calicivirus,11 adenovirus,12 astrovirus13 and influenza14 may be responsible for diarrhea and other symptoms like abdominal pain, fever, headache and vomiting.15
Diarrhea caused by a viral infection usually lasts for several days to two weeks, regardless of the treatment.16
Bacterial infection — Certain bacteria strains like E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella and shigella can cause diarrhea.17
If your child has severe diarrhea from a bacterial infection, the symptoms may include abdominal pain (albeit less severe) and blood in the stool.18
Parasitic infection — Microscopic parasites, like giardia and cryptosporidium may cause diarrhea.19
If you have a giardia infection, other symptoms such as greasy stools, bloating, nausea or appetite loss may occur too.20
Food allergy — This diarrhea occurs when your child’s immune system has an inflammatory response to certain foods.
The reactions can be mild or severe, which can include diarrhea, itching, hives, dizziness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting or breathing difficulty.21
The most common food allergens among children are milk and dairy products, eggs, cereal nuts, soy and seafood.22
Sweetened drinks — Excessively consuming drinks with high-fructose corn syrup and sorbitol can upset your child’s stomach, as they possess laxative effects that may trigger diarrhea.23
Lactose intolerance — A child’s difficulty to digest lactose, a sugar in milk and other dairy products, may lead to abdominal cramps, diarrhea, gas and increased burping.24
Teething — The connection between teething and diarrhea is yet to be determined.
However, it’s possible that because teething babies tend to pick up random things and place them in the mouth, different germs and bacteria can enter the body.25
Effective Diarrhea Treatment for Babies, Toddlers and Children
Medications are rarely recommended for diarrhea, as it can be treated through home care. Here are some strategies you should remember:26
• 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,27 which are important for normal body function.28
• Do not let your child drink sweetened beverages — Sugar-loaded drinks like sodas, processed fruit juices and energy may worsen diarrhea,29 since the sugars may trigger your gut to release water and electrolytes, and cause your stool to be runny and loose.30
• Nourish his body with nutritious whole foods — Within 24 hours of falling ill, provide your 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 — Probiotic-rich 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 a high-quality probiotic supplement that’s specifically formulated for children.31,32
How to Protect Your Child From Diarrhea
Diarrhea in children is often caused by microorganisms that are easily transmitted from hand to mouth.33 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, restroom surface, changing tables or the hands of someone making food.34
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.35 Don’t forget to wash your hands after using the washroom or changing a baby’s diapers.36 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:37,38,39,40
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
Severe diarrhea (more than eight stools in the last eight hours)
High fever of 101 degrees F (38.3 degrees C) or higher in 3- to 6-month-old babies; 103 degrees F (39.4 degrees C) or higher for children 6 months or older.
(If your baby is younger than 3 months and has a temperature that reaches 100.4 degrees F or 38 degrees C, call your doctor immediately to check for serious infection or disease.)