Non Chronic Childhood Conditions Infant Diarrhea

Diarrhea in children, especially infant diarrhea, requires careful treatment to avoid the negative effects of dehydration. Because diarrhea is a general symptom associated with a number of diseases, infant diarrhea is very common. In fact, over 1 billion cases of diarrhea in children occur around the world each year. While most cases of loose bowel movements clear up after a week or so, 3 million cases of diarrhea in children prove fatal every year.

Infant diarrhea mortality rates are highest in underdeveloped countries where access to clean water is limited. In industrialized countries, mortality rates are much lower.

Infant Diarrhea Symptoms

Identifying diarrhea in very young children can be difficult because breastfeeding infants naturally produce loose, wet bowel movements. Occasionally, breastfeeding babies have bowel movements surrounded by “water rings,” or they may have green bowel movements. These unusual bowel movements are also normal while breastfeeding.

During the first two to three months of breastfeeding, infants average one bowel movement for every feeding. Symptoms of infant diarrhea include:

  • a sudden increase in bowel movements
  • bowel movements containing blood
  • fatigue and general weakness
  • fever (not always a symptom)
  • mucus in bowel movements
  • particularly foul-smelling bowel movements.

If your infant exhibits any of these symptoms, consult your doctor who can identify whether or not any underlying condition is causing diarrhea.

Infant Diarrhea and Diaper Rash

Loose bowel movements caused by infant diarrhea can result in painful diaper rash. Minimize diaper rash by quickly changing the infant after urination or bowel movements.

After bowel movements, wash the buttocks and anus and then apply a thick layer of petroleum jelly. If bowel movements overflow diapers, plastic training pants offer a way to control overflow.

Dehydration Symptoms

Loose, watery bowel movements rob the body of fluid and, if left untreated, can result in dehydration. While anyone experiencing diarrhea is susceptible to dehydration, children and infants are especially vulnerable. If your child has diarrhea, be aware of these symptoms of dehydration:

  • dark-colored urine
  • decreased urination
  • dry mouth
  • dry skin
  • high heart rate
  • irritability
  • no tears produced when crying
  • decreased appetite
  • sunken eyes
  • sunken soft spots (fontanels) in infants less than 18 months old
  • increased thirst
  • weight loss.

Report any dehydration symptoms to your child’s doctor. Severe dehydration is the leading cause of infant diarrhea mortality.

Causes of Diarrhea in Children

The conditions that tend to cause diarrhea in children are the same as those that produce diarrhea in adults. The stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis), the most common cause of infant diarrhea, generally causes loose bowel movements for around a week or two.

Other causes of diarrhea in children include:

  • bacterial infections
  • changes in the mother’s diet while breastfeeding
  • dietary changes (such as the introduction of formula or food)
  • drinking contaminated water (This is the most common cause of diarrhea in children who live in third world countries.)
  • excessive fruit juice consumption
  • food allergies
  • intestinal parasites
  • taking antibiotics.

Regardless of the cause of diarrhea, remember that diarrhea is one of the key ways in which the human body dispels toxins. (Vomiting is another way.) As a result, while untreated diarrhea can lead to serious health consequences, wait about three hours before beginning any treatment (aside from keeping your infant hydrated). This allows for your child’s body to thoroughly rid itself of whatever foreign substance triggered his diarrhea.

Toddler’s Diarrhea

Toddler’s diarrhea describes a chronic form of diarrhea in children between six months and three years of age. Although loose bowel movements are present, no cause is evident, as the child eats, grows and develops at a normal rate.

Excessive fruit juice drinking often causes toddler’s diarrhea. Limiting fruit juice and increasing dietary fat and fiber often alleviates toddler’s diarrhea.

Treating Diarrhea in Children

As most cases of diarrhea in children resolve themselves, infant diarrhea treatment generally focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing dehydration. Keep in mind that once you notice that your child suffers from diarrhea, delay treatment (except for the hydration therapy) for a few hours to ensure that his body has been able to expel a large amount, if not all, of the diarrhea-inducing toxins. (Doctors recommend that healthy adults wait about four to six hours).

Diarrhea treatments include the following:

  • Apply heat to the abdomen and lower back to minimize abdominal pain and cramping. Placing hot water bottles and heating pads that are at comfortable temperatures to larger children’s abdominal area can relieve this.
  • Avoid certain foods, such as dairy products, fruit juices, apricots, peaches, peas, pears, plums and prunes. All of these foods tend to worsen loose bowel movements.
  • Drink clear liquids as soon as symptoms appear (i.e., water, broths, teas, etc.) and avoid dehydrators, such as coffee, sodas and sugary drinks. Clear liquids will replace the electrolytes expelled through diarrhea.
  • Eating particular foods can help children on solid foods kick diarrhea. Some of these foods include bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (commonly known as the BRAT diet).
  • Taking medication may be necessary if the diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection. In these cases, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics and whatever other is necessary medication (along with plenty of fluids) to treat the cause of your child’s diarrhea.
  • Taking an ORS, oral rehydration solution, is necessary for infants with diarrhea. While diary products can worsen the symptoms, breastfeeding infants with diarrhea actually have a boosted immunity from their mother’s milk. Rather than stop breastfeeding, mothers should also administer ORS, a mixture of fluid, salt, sugar and elements necessary to prevent dehydration. Before using an ORS to treat infant diarrhea, consult with your doctor to determine the best ORS product and dosage for your baby.
  • Use a soy-based formula if your infant is formula-fed, because it is more easily digested. Your doctor may also advise soy formula with added fiber to encourage more solid and regular bowel movements.Keep in mind that a soy-based formula should be a temporary replacement unless your baby is allergic to lactose. In all cases, soy should be used only under a doctor’s supervision.

When to Call Your Doctor

Episodes of diarrhea in children should be watched carefully for signs of dehydration, especially in the case of infant diarrhea. The younger the child, the faster diarrhea causes dehydration. Call your doctor if any of the following factors are present:

  • abdominal pain for more than two hours
  • blood in bowel movements
  • diarrhea accompanied by a high fever (over 101.4 F)
  • infant diarrhea in a child younger than six months
  • mucous in bowel movements
  • no urination in an eight hour period
  • unusually sleepiness or listlessness.

Preventing Infant Diarrhea

Most children and infants experience occasional diarrhea. You can minimize the risk of contracting diarrhea-causing infections by practicing good hand-washing habits after bowel movements and diaper changes. Encourage children to wash their hands after bowel movements and before eating.

Some diarrhea-causing agents can be transmitted through eating food or drinking fluids contaminated with fecal matter. As a result, children with diarrhea should not share plates or drinking glasses with others.

Inanimate objects can also transmit diarrhea-causing infections. After a bout of infant diarrhea, wash the child’s linen and toys. Sterilize diaper bins and any other baby-care items that may have been contaminated by fecal matter.


Postgraduate Medicine (2002). Diarrhea. Retrieved August 2, 2007 from the Postgraduate Medicine Web site: