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Diarrhoea

Young Babies

Most young children have occasional loose stools. Diarrhoea means the frequent passage of unformed watery stools. Diarrhoea, together with vomiting, is called gastro-enteritis.

The main problem is that, if diarrhoea or gastro-enteritis continues for more than a few hours, your baby can lose too much fluid from the body and may then become dehydrated. The baby becomes lethargic, has a dry mouth, the skin becomes loose and the eyes and fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the head) may become sunken. The baby will also pass very little urine.

To prevent or treat dehydration your baby will need extra fluids. There are special fluids available which can be bought from your local pharmacy or chemist or prescribed by your doctor. These are called oral rehydration fluids and include Dioralyte, Electrolade and Rehidrat.

If the diarrhoea continues for more than a few hours, or your baby is also vomiting or is unwell, contact your doctor or health visitor urgently for advice.

In general, for mild diarrhoea:

  • give extra fluids in the form of oral rehydration fluids – for example, in between feeds or after each watery stool;

  • don’t stop breastfeeding – give the extra fluid in addition to breast milk; 
  • if you are bottle feeding offer normal formula feeds and give extra fluids in the form of oral rehydration fluid.

For more severe diarrhoea or for diarrhoea and vomiting:

  • don’t stop breastfeeding – give oral rehydration fluid in addition to breast milk;
  • stop formula feeds and give oral rehydration fluid for three to four hours;
  • start giving normal formula feeds after giving oral rehydration fluid for three to four hours.

Your doctor will give you further advice. Many no longer advise that you should stop bottle feeding for 24 hours, and also advise that toddlers can go back on to a normal diet three to four hours after having rehydration fluids.

Remember, if your baby is unwell, or if watery diarrhoea has lasted more than a day, seek your doctor’s advice straight away.

Toddler diarrhoea

Some children between the ages of one and five pass frequent, smelly, loose stools with mucus or bits of vegetables in them. Usually these children are otherwise perfectly healthy and are growing fine, and the doctor cannot find any serious cause. This type of diarrhoea is known as ‘toddler diarrhoea’. If your toddler has diarrhoea for which there is no obvious cause the following may help.

  • Giving less fluid between meals and at meals if your child drinks a lot. In particular, cut down on low-calorie drinks with artificial sweeteners and clear apple juice if your child drinks these. If your child is used to drinking a lot you may have to do this gradually by offering smaller amounts. Also, in between meals if your child wants a drink, try offering some snack food too such as a piece of bread and butter with a smaller drink.
  • Try to introduce more foods with fat such as full-fat yoghurt, cheese, fromage frais and butter.
  • If your child is having foods with a lot of fibre, or wholemeal foods, reduce these. Give white bread, pasta and white rice instead of wholemeal varieties.

Older children

Contact your GP if your child is vomiting at the same time, or if the diarrhoea is particularly watery, has blood in it or goes on for longer than two or three days or your child has severe or continuous tummy ache.

  • Otherwise diarrhoea isn’t usually worrying – just give your child plenty of clear drinks to replace the fluid that’s been lost, but only give food if it’s wanted. Do not give anti-diarrhoeal drugs unless prescribed by your GP.
  • Help to prevent any infection spreading by using separate towels for your child and by reminding everyone in the family to wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating.

We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.