Diarrhea In Toddlers: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, And More

Toddlers are prone to diarrhea due to various reasons, the most important being their food. While the severity may vary, it affects a lot of toddlers in varying degrees. It is not a pleasant sight, but practically all parents have to deal with this problem at least once during this phase of their child’s life

It is not just an emotional nuisance to the toddler, making him irritated and anxious, it also causes sores, red anus, maybe dehydration, and probably a bad case of diaper rash. MomJunction shares your pain, and that is why we have put together a comprehensive knowledge guide about diarrhea in toddlers. This will help you understand the cause of diarrhea and what you can do to ease out the pain and stress, both.

What Is Diarrhea?

Kids occasionally experience loose stool. That is not diarrhea. On the other hand, if your sweetie exhibits a sudden change in his bowel movements, wherein he is pooping more than normal, and his stools are watery and looser than normal, he is suffering from diarrhea.

If he passes a few loose stools, your toddler has mild diarrhea, whereas when he passes stool several times in a day, the diarrhea is referred to as severe diarrhea. Whether mild or severe, diarrhea in toddlers is more than enough to alarm the most levelheaded of mothers. However, diarrhea is not a cause for concern unless your toddler gets dehydrated. In fact, dehydration is the main complication of diarrhea, as your toddler loses more body fluid that he consumes [1]. However, if your kiddo is active, running around the house and drinking a sufficient amount of liquid, you can heave a sigh of relief and pray there is no explosion before he reaches the toilet! Diarrhea will resolve in a few days, and everything will return to normal.

How Common Is A Toddler’s Diarrhea?

If you are looking for empirical data on the frequency of a toddler’s diarrhea, you may not find it. However, it should give you some satisfaction to know a toddler’s diarrhea is relatively common and afflicts kids between the ages of one and five.

Dr. Michael Thomson, a consultant pediatric gastroenterologist at London’s Portland Hospital and Sheffield Children’s Hospital, says, “Diarrhea is extremely common. I see children with it almost every week.” There, you go. From the horse’s mouth!

Did you know your cutesy is more likely to get diarrhea than you? Thankfully, when children get diarrhea, it is not a major cause for concern unless the child is vomiting, running a fever, and diarrhea lasts for a week or more.

Symptoms Of Diarrhea In Toddlers:

If your little one is otherwise healthy, active, eating properly and gaining weight, he most probably has toddler’s diarrhea. This is not a cause to worry and get worked up. Diarrhea will abate with a few lifestyle changes, which we will discuss a little later on.

Symptoms of toddler’s diarrhea include:

  • Five to 10 watery, loose and large stools in a day
  • Stools contain undigested food particles
  • Diarrhea lasts for a few weeks and then your child has normal stools for weeks

Usually, this type of diarrhea doesn’t have other symptoms, such as a fever and abdominal pain or cramps.

On the other hand, if your toddler has an infection or some other underlying health problem, he will experience the following symptoms:

  • High-grade fever
  • Blood in the stools
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Severe pain in the abdomen
  • Greasy or oily stools
  • Accidents as your little one are unable to control long enough to reach the toilet [2]

Whether your child has non-specific chronic diarrhea or loose stools brought on by some other problem, you should consult your pediatrician. It will give you peace of mind, and make sure your kid is not in any discomfort.

Causes Of Diarrhea In Toddlers:

There are endless possibilities why toddlers can get diarrhea. Your little angel could have a bacterial or viral infection, but the BM could also occur due to food intolerance, gastrointestinal parasites or even taking antibiotics.

1. Viral Infection:

There are so many viruses out there that can result in diarrhea. The most common ones that cause diarrhea in kids include rotavirus, norovirus, adenovirus, calicivirus and astrovirus. Even the influenza virus can trigger loose stools. However, your child will experience other symptoms besides frequent watery stools. These include abdominal pain, fever, vomiting, chills, and aches in the muscles.

2. Bacterial Infection:

Bacteria like E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella, shigella, and staphylococcus can also be responsible for your sweetie’s diarrhea. When loose stools occur due to bacterial infection, your toddler will have severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and blood in the stool. He may or may not experience vomiting.

3. Parasites:

Ensure your toddler washes his hands with soap and water before eating. Dirty hands can increase the chances of a parasitic infection, which causes diarrhea, nausea, bloating, greasy-looking stools, gas and abdominal cramps.

4. Ear Infection:

An ear infection, whether viral or bacterial can trigger bouts of diarrhea, even if the ear canal and the digestive tract aren’t close to each other. However, an ear infection accompanies nausea, vomiting, and a poor appetite, which may trigger diarrhea.

5. Antibiotics:

Antibiotics can also cause diarrhea as they destroy the beneficial bacteria living in the intestines along with the disease-causing bacteria. So, if you little one suffers a bout of bacteria after taking antibiotics, you know the culprit. Consult your pediatrician if your angel is still on antibiotics for an alternative medication.

6. Juices And Sweetened Beverages:

Juices containing high levels of fructose and sorbitol as well as pre-sweetened beverages can cause diarrhea in toddlers. If you reduce the intake, the symptoms will disappear. Remember, health specialists opine toddlers shouldn’t consume more than four to six ounces of juices in a day.

7. Food Allergy:

If your kid has a food allergy, it could manifest in the form of diarrhea. Usually, mild allergic reactions do not cause hives and swelling of the air passages. Instead, they may result in diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas and perhaps blood in the stool. These symptoms will come on immediately or a few hours after consuming the specific food. Peanut, shellfish, fish, eggs, wheat, and nuts are common food allergens.

8. Food Intolerance:

Food intolerance is different from a food allergy, as it does not involve the body’s immune system. Also called food sensitivity, food intolerance can result in diarrhea, cramps in the abdomen, gas, and bloating. Symptoms usually appear half an hour to two hours after eating the food.

9. Poisoning:

Toddlers are adventurous, and they always want to try new things. This can often result in them trying out non-food items, such as chemicals, plants, or medications. If your kid consumes such an item, he will suffer diarrhea and vomiting. You need to rush him to the ER or poison control center. Other symptoms of poisoning including trouble breathing, losing consciousness, convulsions and fatigue.

How Long Will It Last?

Obviously, you want to know the answer to this question. After all, diarrhea is messy, you are left cleaning up after the bowel movement, and the sight of your kid’s red, the sore bottom is never a pleasing sight. While your bundle of joy will go about life as though there is nothing the matter with him (which is the truth if there is no infection or underlying health problem causing diarrhea), you will be eager to know when the smelly, watery and explosive episodes will end.

Usually, diarrhea should pass within five to seven days. However, on rare occasions, it could last as long as two weeks [5]. If the diarrhea is related to dietary habits, you will have to alter your toddler’s diet to notice a difference. This will take a few days or weeks until you figure out what is causing the loose stools.

Tests To Determine The Cause Of Diarrhea:

If your little one complaints of stomach pain, cramps and is also running a fever, the doctor will suggest tests to figure out the cause of the diarrhea and start the necessary treatment.

1. Medical History:

The pediatrician will want to know the medical history of your child. So take all the papers and prescriptions with you. He may also inquire about the medications your child is taking. Have the list ready, mentioning the OTC and prescription medications.

2. Physical Examination:

The physician will measure your kid’s temperature. He will also check his pulse and maybe blood pressure to see if there are signs of dehydration. The doctor will also gently palpate your child’s abdomen to find out the location of the pain.

3. Blood Test:

If the pediatrician suspects bacterial or viral infection, he may ask for a complete blood count test to find out the diarrhea-causing pathogen.

4. Stool Test:

As stated earlier, kids can get diarrhea if they have gastrointestinal parasites. A stool test not only allows the doctor to find out whether it is a parasite causing the diarrhea or a bacterium.

Treatment For Diarrhea In Toddlers:

Diarrhea in toddlers clears up on its own in a couple of days. If the dietary changes and home remedies don’t work, your pediatrician may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

1. Antibiotics:

When bacteria and parasites are the causes of diarrhea, doctors will prescribe antibiotics. This will help heal the infection and alleviate the symptoms. However, if your cutie has diarrhea due to a virus, antibiotics will be ineffective. The doctor may wait for the viral infection to pass, usually around four to five days.

2. Rehydration:

As mentioned previously, hydration is essential if your child is down with diarrhea. This prevents dehydration, which can be lethal. The doctor will tell you how to replace lost fluids and salts. Usually, this is in the form of oral rehydration solution that you can purchase at your local pharmacy.

If your kiddo is also vomiting and is unable to retain anything, the doctor may suggest hydrating him intravenously. Definitely not something you want, but this is a necessity. So put up your best stiff upper lip and get through it.

3. Treating The Underlying Health Condition:

In case your child’s diarrhea is due to a disease or condition, like inflammatory bowel disease, the priority will be treating it. The diarrhea is a symptom of the underlying health condition, and will abate once the physician treats the disease or condition.

4. Probiotics:

The pediatrician will suggest you feed your toddler probiotics. These microorganisms are naturally present in yogurt. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria living in our gastrointestinal tract. Research shows probiotics help shorten the duration of the diarrhea by a day and do not have adverse side effects [8].

5. Increase Fat Intake:

Studies show kids who are on a low-fat diet are more prone to toddler’s diarrhea. Yes, this type of diet is right for you to prevent cardiovascular disease, but it is important that children eat fat as a part of their diet. They should consume 30 to 40 percent fat, which they can get from whole milk, cheeses, dairy products, yogurt and milk pudding.

6. Minimize Consumption Of Fruit Juices And Squashes:

There are kids out there, who guzzle down fruit juices and squashes to quench their thirst. These toddlers are susceptible to toddler’s diarrhea. Juices and squashes contain sugars, which the body may be unable to absorb. They accumulate in the colon where they absorb water, causing watery stools. Also, fruit juices and squashes are filled with calories. So if your child tends to favor these drinks, his stomach will fill full during mealtimes, causing him to eat fewer fiber-rich veggies and fat, leading to diarrhea.

If your child likes juices and squashes, keep them as an occasional treat. And, when you do give them, dilute the drinks to prevent an upset stomach. Clear juices are the worst, as they have high sugar levels. Cloudy juices may contain fiber, but it is best not to take a chance.

7. Increase Fiber Consumption:

Low-fiber diet can result in non-specific diarrhea among kids aged one to five. Increasing the fiber in your child can help bulk up the stool and prevent watery bowel movements. However, don’t go overboard with the fiber, as too much fiber is counterproductive.

Encourage your kid to eat fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains which are replete with fiber and can stem diarrhea [3].

Remember, if your toddler has diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps and pain, nausea, and vomiting, it is not toddler’s diarrhea. He has an infection, which requires medical intervention. So consult a pediatrician right away to avoid complications.

Preventing Diarrhea In Toddlers:

Mommy dear, let’s get something straight. It is practically impossible to prevent your toddler from getting infections that lead to diarrhea. If the loose stools are due to diet, you can minimize the chances of diarrhea by altering your kiddo’s diet. You also can use the following tips to minimize the chances of your toddler coming down with debilitating diarrhea.

1. Hand Washing:

Teach your child the importance of personal hygiene. Supervise your kid in the bathroom so that he washes his hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before eating. Dirty hands are a source of infections, as they harbor germs.

2. Keep Your Bathroom Clean:

This isn’t rocket science. Bathroom surfaces are filled with germs and disease-causing pathogens. So make sure all surfaces in your bathroom are clean to prevent transmission of infectious germs.

3. Wash Fruits And Veggies Well:

Before eating and cooking make sure you wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running tap water.

4. Maintain Hygiene In The Kitchen:

Raw meat, particularly poultry, can spread germs that cause diarrhea. So wash kitchen counters and utensils that have come in contact with raw meat before you reuse them.

5. Pet-Related Considerations:

Keep your pet’s feeding area separate from where you family eats. Also, don’t wash pet litter, bowls, and cages in the same sink where you wash your veggies, fruits, and utensils. This can result in cross-contamination, leading to diarrheal episodes.

6. Drinking Water:

Refrain from drinking water from streams, lakes and springs unless your local health authorities have certified the sources for being safe for drinking purpose. If you are traveling to a developing nation, avoid tap water altogether. It is best for the family to stick to bottled water [9].

How Can I Take Care Of My Child At Home?

We mothers are notorious for getting worried and worked up when our kids are unwell. So it is quite natural that you want to know how to take care of your child at home. Thankfully, you won’t be spending sleepless nights or getting stressed out if your toddler suffers from diarrhea. Besides a lot of cuddles and hugs, use the following tips to take care of your little one:

1. Limit Juice And Soft Drink Intake:

Drinking too many juices and soft drinks can worsen your little critter’s diarrhea. The sugar content of these beverages is the reason. So keep your kid away from these drinks as well as caffeinated drinks like cola.

2. Oral Hydration:

One of the biggest risks of diarrhea is dehydration. So make sure your child get oral hydration. Do not rely on water and broths for hydration, as they do not contain the minerals and salt the body loses due to diarrhea.

Consult your pediatrician and get oral rehydration solution from a local pharmacy. The solution tastes salty so your kid may not like it. You can chill it or turn it into a popsicle to make it more appetizing for him. You can also flavor it with some juice. It should be one part juice to two parts rehydration solution.

3. Solid Foods:

When kids have diarrhea, they can easily stomach starchy food. So give your kiddo bananas, rice, potatoes, noodles, and crackers to eat. Don’t stop your kid from eating solids, as it facilitates recovery.
However, if your child is vomiting, keep him away from food until he has not vomited for four hours. Instead, give your child a lot of fluids to keep him hydrated. Oral rehydration solution is your best option [4].

What Should I Feed My Toddler (Diet For Toddlers With Diarrhea)?

Feeding and diarrhea go hand-in-hand. You need to provide your kid with nutritious food to help his body heal. Diarrhea will go away with time and usually does not require special treatment unless it is due to an infection.

Rather than giving your toddler three large meals a day, split the food into six to eight small meals throughout the day. Also, encourage him to have salty food, like soup and pretzels.

If your pediatrician recommends a change in diet, opt for bland food. You can incorporate the following in your child’s diet if he is having diarrhea:

  • Bananas
  • Applesauce
  • White rice
  • Toast
  • Broiled fish, chicken, pork, beef or turkey
  • Pasta
  • Cornflakes and oats
  • Veggies such as carrots, mushrooms, asparagus tips, peeled zucchini, beets, green beans and squash
  • Baked potatoes
  • Cooked eggs
  • Jell-O
  • Popsicles
  • Pancakes and waffles made from white, refined flour

Let your kid eat dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese. However, at times, dairy products can worsen diarrhea. If this happens, do not give him these products for a few days.

Foods To Avoid Giving My Toddler:

Just knowing what to feed your toddler when he has diarrhea is not enough. You also should be aware of the foods that you shouldn’t be feeding your sweetheart. Some foods can worsen the symptoms of diarrhea, and these are the foods you should avoid.

  • Fried and greasy foods
  • Processed foods, like sausages
  • Donuts
  • Pastries
  • Apple juice
  • Carbonated and caffeinated drinks
  • Veggies and fruits that lead to flatulence and gas, such as broccoli, peppers, peas, beans, prunes, corn, chickpeas, berries, and green leafy vegetables
  • Full-strength packaged fruit juices

As mentioned earlier, if milk and dairy products worsen your kiddo’s diarrhea or lead to bloating and gas, remove them from his diet.

Treating Diaper Rash Due To Diarrhea:

If your toddler is not toilet trained, he may still be wearing nappies. So diarrhea means a lot of mess and of course, diaper rash. Your angel’s bottom will be in direct contact with the stools until you change the diaper, and this can lead to rashes and skin irritation.

To reduce the chances of diaper rash, be liberal with petroleum jelly or creams containing zinc. Apply a thick coat over your baby’s bottom to form a protective layer. However, make sure you clean the skin and anal region thoroughly after the BM. Washing is better than using toilet paper.

Recognizing Dehydration Due To Diarrhea In Toddlers:

As stated earlier, the biggest cause of concern due to diarrhea in toddlers is dehydration. Usually, mild diarrhea doesn’t lead to dehydration. When your little one has five to eight BMs every day, he loses vital bodily fluids. If the loss is more than the intake of fluids, it results in dehydration.

You have to keep your eyes open for the following signs of dehydration:

1. Decreased Urine Output:

In the early stages of dehydration, your toddler will not have any urine output. If your kid doesn’t urinate for eight hours, it is a sign of dehydration.

2. Dark-Colored Urine:

Usually, urine is colorless or pale yellow in color. However, if your child passes urine that is dark yellow in color, it is a cause for concern.

3. Dry Oral Cavity:

Check the inside of your child’s mouth. If the insides and tongue are dry, he is dehydrated. You may even notice his lips are dry and chapped.

4. Slow Blood Refill:

This is a simple test that you can do at home. Press the thumbnail of your toddler until it goes pale. Then remove the pressure and start counting how long it takes for the nail to regain its pink color. If your child is dehydrated, it will take more than two seconds for the nail to get back its color. This is because of higher blood viscosity.

5. Dry Eyes:

Your toddler will also have dry eyes when he is dehydrated. This means reduced or no tears in the eyes. If your child is not crying and just lying listlessly on the bed, you have a serious problem on your hands.

6. Weakness And Dizziness:

Due to loss of fluids, salts and minerals, your kid will feel weak. This happens when the dehydration is severe. The weakness will be so profound that your child will be unable to stand on his own and will also feel dizzy.

7. Fussy And Fatigued:

If your child was previously happy, alert and playful, and now he is fussy and looking exhausted, he is dehydrated. When a child is active and alert, it is not a reason to worry [6].

Do not ignore the signs of dehydration, as they can be life-threatening. Take your little one to the ER right away. He may require intravenous fluid to replenish the lost fluids. Do not attempt to create your own rehydration solution without consent from your physician.

Dr. Benjamin Ortiz, a pediatrician with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Pediatric Therapeutics, says “The most important aspect of treating diarrhea is knowing the signs of dehydration and taking steps to rehydrate the child.”

When To Call A Doctor?

Diarrhea usually is not a reason to rush your little one to the doctor. However, there are certain signs that warrant a visit to your pediatrician, as they indicate there is a problem. You should call your physician if you notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A fever of 102 degrees F
  • Diarrhea for more than 24 hours
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • The stool is black or tarry [7]

What Is Chronic Diarrhe

Usually, chronic diarrhea is an indication of an underlying health condition. So if your pediatrician treats that condition, the diarrhea will disappear. Children of any age, right from infants to adolescents, can have chronic diarrhea [10].

How Is Chronic Diarrhea Diagnosed?

Diagnosis for chronic diarrhea begins with finding out the medical and family history. Your pediatrician will ask you a few questions so be prepared. Some of the questions are:

  • How long your toddler is having diarrhea?
  • How much stool is he passing?
  • What is the frequency of the diarrhea?
  • What is the appearance of the stool?
  • What is your toddler eating?
  • Does he have any other symptom along with the diarrhea?

The family medical history also is essential, as some conditions such as lactose intolerance and celiac diseases can be hereditary. Sometimes, if the doctor suspects food sensitivity, he may recommend changing the diet and maintaining a food journal to track what your child eats and how it affects his BM.

After questioning and getting answers, the doctor begins the next stages of diagnosis.

1. Physical Examination:

The doctor will check your kid’s body to find out the reason for chronic diarrhea. Using a stethoscope, he will check the bodily sounds and even tap on certain parts of the body to check for responses.

2. Stool Test:

The doctor will request a stool test. You will receive a container for catching and storing the sample, which you will then have to take to a laboratory. The pathologist will check your little one’s stool for parasites, blood, and bacteria. The test can also provide clues to other diseases and disorders.

3. Blood Test:

The pediatrician or phlebologist will draw some blood to check for diseases and disorders. The test will also check the number of white blood cells as elevated numbers mean an infection or inflammation. The blood test also lets the doctor find out whether your toddler is anemic. This can be a sign of bleeding in your toddler’s gastrointestinal tract. If the lab finds the presence of certain antibodies in the blood, it could mean your child suffers from celiac disease.

4. Hydrogen Breath Test:

This test checks for the presence of hydrogen in the breath. Under normal circumstances, the level is minuscule. However, if there are bacteria present in the digestive tract, the level will be high since bacteria metabolize sugars to release hydrogen. Don’t worry, this is a non-invasive test and requires your child to breathe into a balloon-like container and then consuming a sugary drink. The test reveals whether your toddler suffers from fructose intolerance or lactose intolerance, or has too many bacteria in the small intestine.

5. Upper Gastrointestinal Endoscopy:

This test uses a small tube with a light to check the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. Usually, a gastroenterologist performs it. If something is amiss, the endoscope allows the specialist to take a small sample for testing in the lab.

6. Flexible Sigmoidoscopy:

If the doctor believes the problem lies in the colon, he will perform a flexible sigmoidoscopy to see the rectum and lower portion of the colon. A colonoscopy, on the other hand, allows the doctor to check the entire length of the colon. For this test, the colon needs to be clean, without the presence of any fecal matter. Hence, the doctor may ask you to give your kid a laxative for four days before the test is due. He may also receive an enema one day before the test. Be prepared, as the test can lead to bloating and cramping. However, this will be just for a day and the following day your toddler will be his usual self.

How Is Chronic Diarrhea Treated?

The pediatrician will treat chronic diarrhea based on the cause. Some of the treatment options are as follows:

1. Diet Change:

If your kid has a problem digesting carbs or proteins after suffering from a severe infection, the doctor will ask you to change his diet. You may have to sit with a nutritionist to plan his diet so that he does not suffer from malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies.

Toddler’s diarrhea does not require any treatment. It usually goes away on its own with time. You may just have to control your child’s intake of fruit juice and increase his consumption of fat and fiber.

2. Antibiotics:

The doctor will prescribe antibiotics only if your child has a bacterial infection that does not abate on its own. Antibiotics are also the go-to medication for GI tract parasites. Your angel may have to take antibiotics also if there is an overgrowth of flora in the small intestine.

3. Probiotics:

In case, your kid has inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), diet change and medication may do the trick. In many cases, doctors may recommend giving your child probiotics that can improve the symptoms of IBS. Probiotics increase the volume of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and this can help stem chronic diarrhea.

4. Food Avoidance:

Toddlers with celiac disease benefit from a gluten-free diet. It can reduce the frequency of loose stools and also heal the damage on the intestinal lining. Research also shows a gluten-free diet can prevent further damage to the intestine.

In case your toddler suffers from lactose intolerance, you can manage the symptoms by altering his diet or using food products that have the missing lactase enzyme.

For fructose intolerance, you will have to minimize the amount of fructose your child consumes. This will alleviate the symptoms.

5. Surgery:

Surgery is the last treatment option when everything else fails or does not produce desired results. If your child has inflammatory bowel disease, which is chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, surgery will be an option that the doctor will consider only if medication and diet change don’t ease chronic diarrhea.

Diarrhea in Toddlers is not something parents want to contend with. However, toddlers often get diarrhea. If your critter doesn’t have any other symptom and is going about life like a typical toddler – active, alert, happy and adventurous – you have nothing to worry. Just focus on preventing dehydration. Diarrhea will go away in a few days. However, if the symptoms continue after five to seven days, consult your pediatrician.

Usually, infections and disorders will come with cramps, abdominal pain, and fever. So if you kid has these symptoms along with diarrhea, you need a pediatrician to figure out the cause and treat it. Once the physician makes the diagnosis, you have to follow the treatment protocol to the T. Otherwise; it leads to complications that will be worse than cleaning up poop.

Now that you have all the poop-scoop on diarrhea in toddlers, we hope you take heed and keep your toddler safe, healthy and diarrhea-free. This is easier said than done, but isn’t that what parenting is all about? It is a constant journey of learning and improving on our past mistakes! Tell us how you handled it when your toddler had diarrhea. Leave a comment below.

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