Diarrhea is an unpleasant occurrence at any age. Diarrhea in infants can cause concern for caregivers, as infants are especially susceptible to becoming dehydrated if they lose a lot of fluids in a short amount of time.
Diarrhea in babies occurs as frequent watery or loose stools. While babies often have looser stools than adults, if a caregiver notices that their infant is producing looser stool than usual, they might want to consider that the infant has diarrhea.
Diarrhea will often resolve itself, but there are some things a person can do to make their child feel more comfortable when they are experiencing it. It is also essential to take steps to help prevent dehydration, since babies are among the groups at highest risk of becoming dehydrated.
Things people can do at home to manage diarrhea in babies include:
- Keep the infant hydrated: Regardless of whether the caregiver breastfeeds or formula feeds the baby, they should keep feeding their baby often to help replace fluids. People should discuss with their pediatrician whether they should give their infant an oral rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte.
- Prevent diaper rash: Change diapers more frequently than usual, and keep the infant as clean and dry as possible. If a rash does develop, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying a diaper cream containing zinc oxide.
It is important to note that a person should never give an infant over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications. A person should contact their pediatrician for guidance on home care for diarrhea or symptoms that indicate a doctor needs to examine the baby.
Caregivers should always contact a doctor for infant diarrhea if their child is younger than 6 months old. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, caregivers should also talk with a doctor if they notice the following signs in their child:
- symptoms of dehydration, including:
- decreased urine output
- fewer tears when crying
- sunken soft spot (fontanel) on head
- being sleepier than usual
- dry mouth
- lack of energy
- blood in the diarrhea
- weight loss
People should seek emergency care (call 911) immediately for infant diarrhea if the child is weak or not moving (lethargic) or 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. This is when the body has lost too much fluid, a condition that can cause a number of complications.
According to the National Childbirth Trust in the United Kingdom, infants are at a higher risk of developing dehydration if they are younger than 1 year old and even more so if they are younger than 6 months old. The organization also notes that infants have an increased risk of dehydration if they had a low birth weight.
Warning signs that an infant is experiencing mild to moderate dehydration include:
- the soft spot, or fontanel, on the infant’s head appears sunken
- less frequent urine (fewer than six wet diapers a 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 to no urine (dry or almost dry diapers for a prolonged time)
- excessive sleepiness or lack of activity
- cold in the hands and feet
- discoloration of hands and feet
- wrinkled skin
- extreme fussiness
- fast heart rate
- rapid breathing
A baby can develop diarrhea regardless of being breastfed, formula fed, or a mixture of both. 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 the stomach flu, usually clears up after a few days. However, in infants, it can cause dehydration to occur quite quickly, especially if the child experiences both diarrhea and vomiting.
- Diet changes: Depending on how old the infant is, caregivers may give them a selection of solid foods. As their bodies get used to the transition from liquids to solids, their digestive system may react in a way that causes diarrhea.
- Medications: Sometimes, there might be an occasion to give an infant medications for other illnesses and conditions, and the side effects of these medicines may include diarrhea.
Research has suggested that exclusively breastfed babies have diarrhea less frequently than even partially formula fed ones. One study of 150 infants, published in the Journal of Bangladesh College of Physicians and Surgeons, found that around 27% of breastfed babies experienced frequent bouts of diarrhea, compared with almost 72% of those who were formula fed.
However, that is not to say breastfed babies will never develop diarrhea. There are many reasons a breastfed infant may experience diarrhea, including:
- Medications: If the parent or caregiver takes medication, such as antibiotics, it can pass into the breast milk and irritate the infant. As one of the side effects of antibiotics may be diarrhea, this can cause infant diarrhea.
- Diet: If the person breastfeeding changes their diet, it can irritate the child’s digestive system. For example, if they eat spicy foods or food that is very rich, it can pass through the breast milk to the child and interfere with their gut.
Formula fed babies
Certain factors can cause a formula-fed baby to experience diarrhea. These include:
- Allergies: It is possible that a child may have an allergy or intolerance to milk or milk proteins. The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) estimates that 7% of babies under the age of 1 year may have a cow’s milk allergy. Treatment for related symptoms involves eliminating cow’s milk from the child’s diet. For breastfed babies, this means the feeding parent needs to stop drinking cow’s milk. If the baby is formula fed, healthcare professionals can 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 can be temporary, such as after a stomach bug, or it can be mild, and the baby may be able to tolerate small amounts of lactose. A licensed dietician can provide guidance on possible dietary changes.
A person should discuss formula options and any dietary changes with their pediatrician.
Diarrhea is common in infants. Most of the time, it will resolve itself, 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 bowel movements to make sure they know what is typical for their child and what is diarrhea. This way, caregivers can monitor their child for signs of dehydration and make sure that they receive appropriate care when necessary.