How to treat diarrhea in babies and children

A pediatrician explains how to recognize and treat this common problem in kids

Diarrhea is one of the most common childhood ailments, yet many parents find it overwhelming and are unsure of the best way to help their children. While most childhood diarrhea isn’t life threatening, it will cause distress to the child and if not properly treated, can cause additional health risks. Dr. Dyan Hes, Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics provides tips on how parents can treat diarrhea and explains the signs that a child may need additional medical attention.

“With the exception of infants, most diarrhea in children and toddlers can be treated at home without requiring a doctor’s visit,” says Dr. Hes. “As long as the fecal matter doesn’t contain blood or excessive mucus, and the child isn’t showing signs of dehydration, the diarrhea will typically resolve on its own. If the diarrhea is severe, prolonged, or bloody, a stool sample may need to be sent to a laboratory for cultures for bacteria or viruses.”

Parents of babies often have trouble recognizing diarrhea since breast milk causes babies to have naturally loose stool. Parents should take their baby to the doctor if the stool is mostly consisting of a watery substance, since this is most likely diarrhea. Babies and children of any age should be watched for signs of dehydration, which may require IV fluids. These signs include fewer wet diapers, no tears with crying, or dried mucus membranes – such as lips and tongue.

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For children without these symptoms, Dr. Hes recommends a tailored diet that will help manage the discomfort. If a child is old enough to eat solids, while they should be limited, some rice cereal, rice, crackers, toast or dry cheerios may be offered.  Bananas are extremely beneficial to bind the bowels and slow the diarrhea.  

In older children, parents can also offer ginger ale, chamomile tea with sugar, and chicken broth. The lactose sugar in dairy products and the natural sugars in juices can worsen diarrhea and should therefore be avoided. While bland food isn’t necessary, many children will request it because of the discomfort they are under. As a child improves, you can advance the diet as tolerated.

Flavored electrolyte replacement therapy drinks are great for oral rehydration – diluted sports drinks may also be given to older children. If an infant is appearing dehydrated, don’t just give them plain water. Water does not have electrolytes to replace the salts and glucose lost with a gastrointestinal illness.

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Parents of infants may want to purchase an infant electrolyte formula for oral rehydration therapy, which will provide babies with all the electrolytes they need to prevent dehydration. They can also offer electrolyte ice pops for baby to suck on.

“It’s important to remember that if there is vomiting involved – which it often is – to try offering liquid in small quantities,” says Dr. Hes. “A baby gulping down 4-5 oz. of electrolyte fluid at once will likely begin vomiting.  Small sips are the key to proper hydration.”

Probiotics are another key treatment element. They restore the natural flora to the gut, which was killed by the gastrointestinal disturbance, and can speed up recovery time. Taking probiotics will also help to ease the temporary lactose intolerance caused by the diarrhea. The child’s pediatrician will be able to offer advice on which probiotic to choose. Dr. Hes recommends using probiotics for a total of one month, even after the child recovers in order to restore balance.

Dr. Dyan Hes is the Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City and sits on the board of the American Board of Obesity Medicine.