Chronic diarrhea in infants who eat solid food is defined as frequent, loose, watery bowel movements for at least 4 weeks. It can lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and other serious complications.

Chronic diarrhea is different from occasional loose stools, which are common in infants.

Infants not yet eating solid foods, particularly those fed breast milk or formula, may have multiple loose or watery stools per day.

Determining whether an infant has diarrhea can be difficult. An ongoing change in stool consistency, such as larger, more watery stools or increased stool frequency, could indicate chronic diarrhea.

If a caregiver is unsure whether an infant has diarrhea, they should consult a pediatrician.

This article discusses symptoms that may accompany diarrhea in infants, the possible causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

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The main symptom of chronic diarrhea in infants is the occurrence of frequent, loose, watery bowel movements persisting for a minimum of 4 weeks.

Younger infants who do not yet eat solid food tend to have loose, watery stools, so it can be difficult to know whether they are experiencing diarrhea.

A persistent change in the size and frequency of their stools may indicate diarrhea. Caregivers can consult a pediatrician for a diagnosis.

Other symptoms of chronic diarrhea may include:

Symptoms of dehydration

Dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluid than it takes in. This can happen with chronic diarrhea.

Diarrhea can lead to an imbalance in electrolytes, which potentially causes serious health issues, especially in infants.

Symptoms of dehydration can include:

  • Dry mouth and thirst: Infants may appear unusually thirsty or have a dry or sticky mouth.
  • Reduced urine output: Fewer wet diapers than usual or decreased urine output can indicate dehydration.
  • Sunken fontanelles: The soft spots on the baby’s head, called fontanelles, can appear sunken.
  • Lethargy and irritability: Infants may be unusually tired, irritable, or difficult to console.
  • Dry skin: Skin might feel dry and cool to the touch.
  • Crying without tears: Infants may cry but produce no tears.

Other symptoms may include:

  • dark-colored urine
  • rapid heartbeat and breathing
  • cool extremities
  • sunken eyes

Learn about signs of dehydration in toddlers.

Symptoms of malabsorption

Malabsorption refers to the body’s inability to absorb nutrients properly from the digestive tract. It often leads to nutrient deficiencies and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Some symptoms include:

  • Weight loss: Inadequate absorption of nutrients can lead to weight loss or failure to thrive.
  • Abdominal pain and bloating: Discomfort or pain can occur in the abdominal area, often accompanied by bloating.
  • Foul-smelling stools: Stools may have a strong and unpleasant odor.
  • Skin issues: Skin issues include dryness, rashes, or easy bruising.

Other symptoms may include:

Learn more about malabsorption.

Many things can cause chronic diarrhea in infants, including:

Read more about infant diarrhea.

Chronic diarrhea in infants can be dangerous. The most immediate risk associated with chronic diarrhea is dehydration.

Dehydration can lead to imbalances in the body’s electrolytes, affecting vital functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and kidney function. This can also lead to muscle weakness, irregular heart rhythms, and other serious complications.

Infants with chronic diarrhea may experience poor weight gain or weight loss due to the loss of fluids and nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition, growth delays, and developmental issues.

Caregivers should seek medical attention if they have any concerns about an infant’s health, including diarrhea.

A pediatrician can provide a proper diagnosis, recommend appropriate treatment, and help prevent complications associated with chronic diarrhea.

Doctors need to diagnose the underlying cause of chronic diarrhea.

This usually involves a comprehensive medical evaluation, which typically includes clinical assessment, medical history review, and physical examination.

Doctors may also perform the following:

Treating chronic diarrhea in infants involves addressing the underlying cause while focusing on maintaining hydration and proper nutrition.

Treatment options include:

  • Fluid replacement: Infants with diarrhea are at risk of dehydration due to fluid loss. Oral rehydration solutions can replenish lost fluids and electrolytes. People should only give these under the supervision of their doctor.
  • Dietary changes: If a food allergy or sensitivity is suspected, the infant’s diet may need modifications. In some cases, breastfeeding parents may also need to adjust their diet.
  • Medication: Depending on the cause, a doctor might prescribe antibiotics, antiparasitic drugs, or other appropriate medications.
  • Nutritional support: For infants experiencing weight loss or malnutrition, a doctor might recommend special formulas or nutritional supplements.

Regular follow-up appointments are essential to monitor the infant’s progress and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

It is recommended caregivers follow a pediatrician’s advice when managing chronic diarrhea in an infant. Below are some general guidelines regarding foods to eat and avoid. A doctor may provide a list of specific foods tailored to the infant.

Breast milk or formula is the primary source of nutrition for infants. Feeding them breast milk or an appropriate formula ensures they receive essential nutrients. For some older infants with chronic diarrhea, additional healthy fats and fiber can help alleviate diarrhea.

If the infant has a suspected dairy allergy, it is advisable to avoid cow’s milk, cheese, and other dairy products.

Doctors also recommend not giving infants fruit juices, particularly those with added sugars.

In infants, chronic diarrhea is defined as frequent, loose, watery stools lasting at least 4 weeks. Symptoms such as blood in the stool, poor weight gain, and failure to thrive can accompany diarrhea.

Timely diagnosis is crucial for effectively managing chronic diarrhea in infants and preventing complications, such as malnutrition. Doctors may perform a physical examination and order blood tests or an endoscopy.

Treatment may involve fluid replacement, dietary changes, and medication.