The Ultimate Baby Diarrhea Guide: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments and Prevention

The Ultimate Baby Diarrhea Guide: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments and Prevention

Wondering when you should worry about baby diarrhea or how to tell if your baby has it? Here’s everything you need to know about what causes baby diarrhea, common symptoms as well as baby diarrhea treatment options and how to prevent it.

What does baby diarrhea look like? | 3 common baby diarrhea causes: Why do babies have diarrhea? | Diarrhea combined with dehydration: How do I know if my baby is dehydrated? | Baby diarrhea treatment and prevention tips for viral diarrhea | Baby diarrhea treatment and prevention tips due to feeding or diet issues | When should I worry about baby diarrhea? Does baby diarrhea go away on its own? | Baby diarrhea quiz: Fact or fiction?

What does baby diarrhea look like?

Diarrhea is defined as three or more loose, watery or frequent stools. One or more loose stools can be normal with a change in diet, but more than that may be diarrhea. Often baby diarrhea is greenish in color, but this isn’t always the case. It’s normal to see bright yellow poop in breastfed (and sometimes formula-fed) babies on occasion. However, if poop is frequently overly watery and bright yellow, it could also be diarrhea. In newborn breastfed babies, poop is often runny and seedy, which can look like diarrhea.

Generally, diarrhea is described as frequent, large, watery stools with a foul smell. Mild diarrhea may be around 3-5 watery stools a day while a severe case has 10 or more watery stools a day.

If your baby is experiencing diarrhea, you should talk to your pediatrician to discover the reason and learn about baby diarrhea treatment options.

3 common baby diarrhea causes: Why do babies have diarrhea?

Doctors and researchers agree that baby diarrhea can be caused by a variety of factors. The most common causes of diarrhea in babies includes changes in baby's or your diet, feeding issues (such as a sensitivity to a food in the mother’s diet if the baby is breastfed), cow’s milk allergy, and intestinal viruses. Other potential baby diarrhea causes include antibiotic use by the baby or breastfeeding mother, bacterial infections or other rarer causes.

1. Baby diarrhea due to a virus

If you suspect your baby has a virus, contact your doc right away. If diarrhea is due to a virus, it’s important to make sure your baby is replenishing vital fluids, salts, and minerals.

Virus symptoms in your baby include:

  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Belly pain

2. Diet issue: Baby diarrhea caused by a food sensitivity

If you’re breastfeeding, your baby may react to something you’ve eaten. The best way to find out if this is the cause of your baby's diarrhea is to eliminate certain foods from your diet on a trial basis, with the help of your pediatrician. You’ll likely be advised to keep a food diary and note a pattern of behaviors when you consume certain foods. Often, you’ll have to forgo potential sensitivities for 2 weeks to see if they’re the culprit.

3. Diet issue: Baby diarrhea due to an allergy

If your baby has diarrhea after all or almost all feedings, this may be a clue that an allergy is to blame. If your baby has this experience, check with your doctor to see if they might suspect a cow’s milk allergy (CMA). Research shows that about 3-7% of babies have a cow’s milk allergy. In these cases, babies are allergic to proteins found in cow’s milk and other dairy products. The proteins casein and whey are often culprits. Other symptoms of CMA can include:

  • Colic
  • Skin rashes
  • Vomiting

It's important to talk to your baby's doctor if you're concerned that an allergy is causing your baby's diarrhea. Beyond an elimination diet, there are CMA tests for infants to help identify if dairy is the cause.

Diarrhea combined with dehydration: How do I know if my baby is dehydrated?

If you suspect your baby may be dehydrated, contact your doctor immediately. An electrolyte water solution may be suggested if dehydration is severe. Research indicates that diarrhea is especially serious when it results in dehydration.

Signs of baby dehydration include:

  • No tears when crying
  • Lack of wet diaper for 6 to 8 hours in an infant or only urinating a small amount of dark yellow urine
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy

Baby diarrhea treatment and prevention tips for viral diarrhea

It’s not uncommon for babies to have diarrhea from time to time. While it’s usually not serious, it’s important to know about baby diarrhea treatment and how to avoid it in the future.

How to prevent viral diarrhea

Baby diarrhea can sometimes happen, so it’s important to take steps to avoid it:

  • 1. Hand washing: Everyone who comes in contact with your baby should first thoroughly wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. Wash your baby’s hands often, too.
  • 2. Disinfecting: Be sure to disinfect changing tables, toys, and other surface areas your baby touches. One of the best ways of disinfecting these areas is to clean with a mixture made with half a cup of bleach combined with a gallon of water.

How to treat viral diarrhea

To treat baby diarrhea that comes from a virus, keep these considerations in mind:

  • 1. Top up formula or breast milk: Offer additional breast milk or formula to your baby—it’s important to increase these liquids.
  • 2. Consider an electrolyte solution: Ask your doctor about possibly giving your baby an oral rehydration solution. Electrolyte solutions quickly replace water and electrolytes baby would have lost from diarrhea. The high amounts of electrolyte sodium and balance of carbohydrates helps promote absorption of both fluids and electrolytes. Since there’s tummy turmoil it’s best to choose one without the use of artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners.

Important tip: Do NOT give your baby anti-diarrhea medications unless their doctor specifically calls for it.

3 things to avoid if your baby has viral diarrhea

  1. Plain water: Water does not contain enough sodium and other minerals needed to replace what was lost during dehydration.
  2. Apple juice: Juices and other sweet drinks can just make the diarrhea worse due to their sugar content and acidity. On top of that, acidic diarrhea can be painful—definitely something you’ll want to avoid!
  3. New foods: Since your baby’s tummy is feeling tumultuous, now isn’t the time to try new foods or introduce new beverages (unless specifically advised by your doctor.)

Most babies with moderate diarrhea should be able to eat a normal diet. If they eat solid foods or baby food, continue to give them those foods as normal. Cereals and more starchy foods like rice, crackers and pasta are best because they are easy to digest.

Baby diarrhea treatment and prevention tips due to feeding or diet issues

If diarrhea is due to a feeding issue, it’s important to take note of everything your baby is ingesting so your doctor can find out what may be the reason for baby’s symptoms.

Watch for food sensitivity or dairy allergies

If you’re breastfeeding and your baby has diarrhea along with other symptoms, such as vomiting or colic, check with your doctor to see if eliminating certain foods from your diet can help. Often, doctors will suggest avoiding dairy in a mother’s diet and monitoring to see whether there’s any improvements. Fingers crossed! There are options for treatment if your baby has CMA.

The good news is that there are now several affordable and delicious non-dairy food alternatives out on the market (as well as formulas.) Most little ones with CMA grow out of it by age 5.

Ask your doc about switching formula

Whether your baby’s digestive tract seems a little sensitive or you suspect an actual allergy such as cow’s milk allergy, check with your doctor about formula options. For instance, some hypoallergenic baby formulas have specific proteins that are easier for babies to digest. A switch like this may be a simple baby diarrhea treatment option when diarrhea is associated with cow’s milk allergy.

Consider infant probiotics for diet issues

You may have heard more about probiotics or prebiotics and gut bacteria health lately. A healthy gut microbiome is important at any age, and both prebiotics and probiotics are thought to help sustain and grow the good bacteria in your baby’s tummy. Infant probiotics can help support your baby's digestive health.

When should I worry about baby diarrhea? Does baby diarrhea go away on its own?

Infants will likely experience baby diarrhea once in a while and it's usually not serious. However, it's important to recognize any potential warning signs and know when it's best to contact your doctor.

When to call your doctor immediately

There are times when you should get your doc on the phone right away. If your baby has diarrhea and the following, it’s best to get them treated immediately.

Call your pediatrician if your baby...

  • Is vomiting along with the diarrhea
  • Has severe diarrhea or diarrhea that lasts several days
  • Does not have wet diapers (or other symptoms of dehydration, including dry mouth)
  • Has a rectal temperature of 100.4 °F or higher
  • Has diarrhea that contains blood or mucus
  • Seems to be in pain
  • Is three months old or younger

Before you see your pediatrician about baby diarrhea

While understanding the signs associated with diarrhea is important, you should consider making a list of questions before you see your baby's pediatrician to ensure you have all your bases covered.

  • Call the office and ask if you should do anything in preparation for your visit.
  • Write down all your baby's issues and your concerns, including answers to these questions:
    • When did you first notice your baby's diarrhea?
    • How often is your baby experiencing diarrhea in a day?
    • Is it explosive diarrhea?
    • What are their other behaviors: crying, fussiness, or spitting up?
    • Has your baby had any indications of an allergic reaction - skin rashes, hives, breathing trouble?
    • Is your baby refusing to eat?
    • Does anything seem to improve their issues or make them worse?
  • Make a list of any medications, foods or formula your baby is consuming
  • Note any changes in your baby’s sleep pattern, eating habits or illness

Baby diarrhea: 8 questions to ask your pediatrician

While it's not uncommon for babies to have occasional bouts of diarrhea, you should feel comfortable calling your baby's doctor at any time for information, advice and assurance.

Here are 8 key questions to consider asking if your baby is experiencing diarrhea:

  1. What are the typical causes of diarrhea in babies?
  2. What are the indications of a virus?
  3. Could diarrhea be an indication of a feeding issue or food allergy?
  4. Should I change my baby's formula or diet? What should I add? What should I take out?
  5. I'm breastfeeding; could something in my diet be causing my baby's diarrhea?
  6. What can I do at home to ease my baby’s diarrhea?
  7. How do I help avoid diarrhea in my baby in the future?
  8. Could infant diarrhea be an indication of a more serious problem?

Baby diarrhea quiz: Fact or fiction?

With so much info to cover and sort through with regards to baby diarrhea, it’s no wonder that there are a lot of falsehoods that many people still hold true. Here’s some other facts you should know about baby diarrhea symptoms, and the myths you can disregard.

The stool of breastfed babies looks different than the stool of formula-fed babies.

Fact: In actuality, the stool of breastfed babies is often mistaken for diarrhea because it’s runny in nature and often appears yellow and seedy. Formula-fed babies have thicker stools. So what baby diarrhea symptoms help distinguish it? If your baby has diarrhea, you’ll notice frequent, large, watery stools that may smell particularly foul.

If your little one has frequent diarrhea after each feeding, they may have a cow’s milk allergy.

Fact: About 3-7% of babies have an allergy to cow's milk. In these cases, babies react to proteins found in milk and other dairy products. In addition to diarrhea, allergic babies might also experience vomiting, skin rashes, and colic. Talk to your doctor to see if this is the case for your baby. Your doctor might suggest Nutramigen® with Enflora™ LGG®, which has hypoallergenic proteins that are easy for babies to digest.

If you’re exclusively breastfeeding and your baby has consistent diarrhea, it might be caused by something in your diet.

Fact: Your pediatrician might suggest eliminating certain foods from your diet on a trial basis. Often, dairy is the first food to be eliminated. You’ll likely be advised to keep a food diary and note a pattern of symptoms (for example, when baby had diarrhea, colic, or vomiting) after you consume certain foods. Any patterns can help your pediatrician pinpoint diarrhea triggers for your little one.

If your baby has diarrhea due to a virus, you should decrease the amount of liquids your baby drinks.

Fiction: One of the most serious side effects of diarrhea is dehydration, so this is an important myth to dispel. When babies are dehydrated, they lose vital fluids, salts and minerals, so it’s important that these fluids and nutrients are replenished. One of the most important things you can do is offer additional breast milk or formula to your baby. Plain and simple: it’s very important to increase the liquids, not decrease them.

If your baby has diarrhea, you should give them water or apple juice.

Fiction: Plain water does not contain enough sodium and other minerals needed to replace what was lost during dehydration. Also, apple juice and other sweet drinks can just make the diarrhea worse due to their sugar content and acidity. On top of that, acidic diarrhea can be more painful.

If your baby’s diarrhea is severe, you can try an over-the-counter medicine for treatment of diarrhea.

Fiction: Babies suffering from prolonged diarrhea are most likely dehydrated. The key is to replenish their fluids to help them start feeling better. Fluids—not medicine—are the answer to treating dehydration. Plus, over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea can have substantial side effects. It’s best to talk to your baby’s doctor about possibly giving your baby an oral rehydration solution.

You may feel upset or worried, but with time (and sometimes treatment) your baby’s digestive issues should improve and go back to normal. But right now, your doctor is the best person to help you determine if your baby has repeated diarrhea and what may be causing it, so don’t hesitate to pick up the phone! Follow the tips above and your baby will be on the road to recovery in no time.

It’s great that you’re being such a diligent mama, so keep up the good work! Be sure to check out more info on common feeding issues, and the extensive baby stool guide for tons more information on how to help alleviate your little one’s tummy troubles.