Childhood Diarrhea

Diarrhea is when you pass stool many times a day, and it is watery and loose. (Passing stool is called having a “bowel movement.”)

Diarrhea is one way your child’s body fights infection. Diarrhea can also clean out your child’s intestines when he or she eats something bad. Children get diarrhea often, especially mild diarrhea.

Breast-fed babies have many soft bowel movements in a day. They may pass stool every time they eat. Twelve or more bowel movements a day is OK. This is not diarrhea. Bottle-fed babies don’t have as many bowel movements. Even so, 1 or 2 loose stools is not diarrhea. In a baby, diarrhea is many very runny bowel movements.

Many things can cause diarrhea:

  • Infection by viruses, bacteria, or parasites (A virus is the most common cause. Your child may also throw up, have a fever, have a runny nose, and/or feel very tired. Children can catch these viruses at school or daycare.)
  • Eating too much of foods they are not used to
  • Food poisoning
  • Allergies (Example: milk allergy)
  • Getting upset
  • Taking too many laxatives (Example: Teens trying to lose weight sometimes take laxatives.)
  • Taking some medicines (Example: Antibiotics )
  • Drinking bad water or food while traveling
  • Catching an infection from someone else who has been travelling

Watch out for dehydration.

Dehydration is when your body doesn’t have enough water. This is very important if your child is throwing up, too. Dehydration can happen very fast in babies and young children.

Questions to Ask

Is the person with diarrhea a baby or young child?

Does the baby or child have any of these problems with the diarrhea?

  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry skin and dry mouth
  • Crying that has no tears
  • Dry diaper for more than 3 hours in a baby
  • Passing no urine for more than 6 hours in a child
  • Feeling weak and tired
  • Easily upset or cranky
Yes: Seek Care
Does your child have any of these problems with the diarrhea?
  • Blood in the stool
  • Very bad pain in the stomach
  • Acts very sick
Yes: Seek Care
Has the diarrhea lasted 48 hours or more? And or does your child have a fever of 101oF or higher? Or has your
child thrown up just water 3 or more times?
Yes:See Doctor
Has your child taken any medicine? (Medicine your child takes may not work because of the diarrhea. Or an over-the-counter medicine may be giving your child the diarrhea.)Yes:Call Doctor
If your child is a baby, are they getting the diarrhea more than 8 times a day?Yes:Call Doctor
Did the diarrhea come after bad constipation? (Constipation is when you can’t go to the bathroom.) Does your child often get stains on their underwear?Yes:Call Doctor
Has your child been near someone with bacterial diarrhea? (Bacterial diarrhea usually happens to people travelling in
other countries.) Or did your child get diarrhea after they ate or drank something in a different country?
Yes:Call Doctor
Does your child go to a day care center?Yes:Call Doctor

Self-Care Tips

  • Don’t give your child any solid food or milk (except breast milk).
  • Give your child plenty of clear liquids.
    • Give 2 ounces an hour to babies.
    • Give 4 ounces an hour to children between 1 and 5 years old.
    • Give 5 ounces an hour to older children.

  • You can buy Pedialyte or Lytren at most drug stores. They have liquid and minerals. Doctors recommend them for babies.

  • Here are some other clear liquids:
    • Sport drinks like Gatorade, Power Ade, All Sport
    • Clear broth
    • Sodas like ginger ale, flat cola, 7-Up, or Sprite (Mix them half-and-half with water.)
    • Weak tea with sugar
    • Popsicles
    • Jell-O (liquid or solid) Don’t use red Jell-O. It can look like blood in the stool.
    • Mix 5 teaspoons of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt with 4 cups of water. (Don’t use too much salt.)

    Note: Water by itself is not good for children with diarrhea. Give other liquids, too.

  • Don’t give your child very hot or very cold liquids.
  • Don’t give your child apple juice. Apple juice can make children’s diarrhea worse.

  • Give your child as much to drink as they want. Call the doctor if you are not sure.
  • Call the doctor if your child shows signs of dehydration:
    • thirsty
    • muscle cramps
    • confused or dizzy
    • weak

When the diarrhea starts to get better, follow these tips:

  • Feed your child a B.R.A.T. diet. B.R.A.T. stands for ripe Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast. Give these foods to your child before you try any others.
  • Feed your child small amounts of soft foods like crackers or cooked potatoes. Don’t give milk or other dairy foods to older children for 1 or 2 days. But do give breast milk or formula to your baby.
  • Don’t feed your child high-fiber foods like whole-grain bread, bran cereal, or raw fruits and vegetables. Wait until the diarrhea is gone.
  • Don’t let your child exercise too hard until the diarrhea is all gone.

  • Don’t give your child Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol, or any other medicine that has salicylates, if they are under 19 years old unless your doctor tells you to. These medicines, like aspirin have salicylates which have been linked to Reye’s Syndrome, a condition that can kill.
  • Follow these tips if the diarrhea was caused by an infection:
    • Make sure your child washes their hands after they use the toilet.
    • Give your child paper towels to dry their hands.
    • Have everyone at home wash their hands often, so the infection doesn’t spread. Be sure to wash your hands after changing diapers or washing your child.

  • Store and cook foods carefully to keep them fresh. (This is one way to avoid food poisoning.)

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021