Health Information

Beware of Diarrhea Dehydration in Infants, Toddlers

We all dread diarrhea. But when the patient is your infant or toddler, diarrhea can range from a minor annoyance to a medical emergency.

The stools of healthy breast- or formula-fed infants usually have the consistency of oatmeal or cream of wheat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. When diarrhea occurs, the stools become more frequent and watery.

The cause can include viruses, bacteria, parasites, medications, such as antibiotics or food intolerance. Chronic diarrhea (diarrhea that lasts more than 6 weeks), blood in the stools, listlessness, and weight loss can indicate a severe illness.

Usually, diarrhea lasts several days. Its most serious side effect is dehydration. Children need plenty of fluids to replace what they're losing through illness.

Know the signs

Signs of dehydration in infants and young children include a drastic decrease in wet diapers over a 24-hour period, dry mouth, lack of tears when crying, tiredness, and sunken eyes. Call your health care provider if your child shows any of the signs of dehydration.

To replace the body fluids that are lost with diarrhea, infants and children should drink plenty of whatever fluids they normally drink. If you are breastfeeding, continue to do so. Young babies should not be given plain water but should continue formula or breastmilk. Older infants and toddlers can be given water or other nonsugary drinks. Juice and soda contain sugar and may worsen diarrhea. If your child appears dehydrated, he or she may drink glucose-electrolyte solutions. These fluids have the right balance of water, sugar, and salts, and some are available as popsicles. 

You should call your health care provider if blood, mucus, or pus is present in stools, if your infant has a fever of 100.4 °F (38°C) or higher, or if your toddler has a fever of 104°F (40°C) or higher. In addition, call your health care provider if your infant or toddler has diarrhea for more than 3 days, severe pain in the abdomen or rectum, repeated vomiting, or signs of dehydration.