Treatment and when to contact a doctor
Diarrhea is an unpleasant event at any age. Diarrhea in infants can be of concern to caregivers, as infants are particularly likely to become dehydrated if they lose a lot of fluids in a short period of time.
Diarrhea in babies is manifested by frequent watery or loose stools. Although babies often have softer stools than adults, if a caregiver notices that their baby is producing softer stools than usual, they may want to consider the baby as having diarrhea.
Diarrhea often resolves on its own, but there are some things a person can do to make their child feel more comfortable when they have it. It is also essential to take steps to help prevent dehydration, as babies are among the groups most at risk of becoming dehydrated.
Things people can do at home to manage diarrhea in babies include:
- Keep the infant hydrated: It doesn’t matter if the caregiver is breastfeeding or formula feeding the baby, they should continue to feed their baby often to help replace fluids. People should talk to their pediatrician about whether to give their infant an oral rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte.
- Prevent diaper rash: Change diapers more often than usual and keep the baby as clean and dry as possible. If a rash develops, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying a diaper cream that contains zinc oxide.
It is important to note that a person should never give an infant over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medication. A person should contact their pediatrician for advice on home care if they have diarrhea or have symptoms that a doctor needs to examine the baby.
Caregivers should always contact a doctor for childhood diarrhea if their child is less than 6 months old. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, caregivers should also see a doctor if they notice the following signs in their child:
- symptoms of dehydration, including:
- decreased urine production
- less tears when crying
- sunken soft spot (fontanelle) on the head
- to be more sleepy than usual
- dry mouth
- lack of energy
- blood in diarrhea
People should immediately seek emergency care (call 911) for infant diarrhea if the child is weak or does not move (lethargic) or if the caregiver thinks there may be a life-threatening emergency.
The most important thing to watch out for if a child has diarrhea is dehydration. It is when the body has lost too much fluid, a condition that can lead to a number of complications.
According to the National Childbirth Trust in the UK, infants are more at risk of developing dehydration if they are under a year old and even more if they are under 6 months old. The organization also notes that infants have an increased risk of dehydration if they have a low birth weight.
Warning signs that an infant has mild to moderate dehydration include:
- the soft spot, or fontanel, on the infant’s head appears sunken
- less frequent urination (less than six wet diapers per day)
- dark yellow urine
- no or few tears when crying
- dry mouth, lips and eyes
Symptoms of severe dehydration in babies include:
- sunken eyes
- little or no urine (dry or almost dry diapers for an extended period)
- excessive sleepiness or lack of activity
- cold in hands and feet
- discoloration of hands and feet
- Wrinkled skin
- extreme restlessness
- rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
A baby can develop diarrhea whether it is breastfed, formula fed, or a mixture of the two. Causes of diarrhea in babies include:
- Gastroenteritis: This viral infection is the most common cause of diarrhea in infants. Vomiting can also be a symptom. This condition, also known as a stomach bug or stomach flu, usually goes away after a few days. However, in infants it can cause dehydration quite quickly, especially if the child has both diarrhea and vomiting.
- Diet changes: Depending on the infant’s age, caregivers may give a selection of solid foods. As their bodies get used to the transition from liquids to solids, their digestive systems may respond in a way that causes diarrhea.
- Medications : Sometimes there may be an opportunity to give an infant medication for other illnesses and conditions, and the side effects of these medications may include diarrhea.
Research has suggested that babies who are exclusively breastfed have diarrhea less frequently than those who are even partially formula fed. A study of 150 infants, published in the Journal of Bangladesh College of Physicians and Surgeons, found that about 27% of breastfed babies had frequent episodes of diarrhea, compared to nearly 72% of those who were formula fed.
However, this does not mean that breastfed babies will never develop diarrhea. There are many reasons why a breastfed infant may experience diarrhea, including:
- Medications : If the parent or caregiver takes medicines, such as antibiotics, they can pass into breast milk and irritate the baby. As one of the side effects of antibiotics can be diarrhea, it can cause diarrhea in the infant.
- Diet: If the breastfeeding person changes their diet, it can irritate the child’s digestive system. For example, if they eat spicy foods or very rich foods, they can pass from breast milk to the baby and interfere with his intestines.
There are certain factors that can cause diarrhea in a formula-fed baby. These include:
- Allergies: A child may have an allergy or intolerance to milk or milk protein. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) estimates that 7% of babies under one year of age may be allergic to cow’s milk. Treatment of the associated symptoms is to eliminate cow’s milk from the child’s diet. For breastfed babies, this means that the breastfeeding parent should stop drinking cow’s milk. If the baby is formula-fed, healthcare professionals may prescribe special formula.
- Intolerance: Another more common cause of diarrhea is lactose intolerance. This is when the body cannot digest lactose, a natural sugar found in milk. According to the NHS, this may be temporary, like after a stomach bug, or it may be mild, and the baby may be able to tolerate small amounts of lactose. A registered dietitian can provide advice on possible dietary changes.
A person should discuss preparation options and any dietary changes with their pediatrician.
Diarrhea is common in infants. Most of the time it will resolve on its own and caregivers can treat it at home. However, there are some signs to watch out for that may require medical attention, such as symptoms of dehydration.
People should pay attention to their infant’s stools to make sure they know what is typical for their child and what diarrhea is. This way, caregivers can monitor their child for signs of dehydration and make sure they are receiving the proper care if needed.