When your child has diarrhea
Diarrhea is the passage of loose or watery stools. For some children, diarrhea is mild and will go away within a few days. For others, it may last longer. It can make your child lose too much fluid (dehydrated) and feel weak.
The stomach flu is a common cause of diarrhea. Medical treatments, such as antibiotics and some cancer treatments can also cause diarrhea.
This article speaks of diarrhea in children over 1 year of age.
It is easy for a child with diarrhea to lose too much fluid and become dehydrated. Lost fluids need to be replaced. For most children, drinking the kinds of fluids they normally have should be enough.
Some water is OK. But too much water alone, at any age, can be harmful.
Other products, such as Pedialyte and Infalyte, may help keep a child well-hydrated. These products can be bought at the supermarket or pharmacy.
Popsicles and Jell-O can be good sources of fluids, especially if your child is vomiting. You can slowly get large amounts of fluids into children with these products.
You may also give your child watered-down fruit juice or broth.
Do not use medicines to slow down your child's diarrhea without talking to a doctor first. Ask your child's health care provider if using sports drinks is OK.
Diet for Children With Diarrhea
In many cases, you can continue feeding your child as usual. The diarrhea will normally go away in time, without any changes or treatment. But while children have diarrhea, they should:
- Eat small meals throughout the day instead of 3 big meals.
- Eat some salty foods, such as pretzels and soup.
When necessary, changes in the diet may help. No specific diet is recommended. But children often do better with bland foods. Give your child foods such as:
- Baked or broiled beef, pork, chicken, fish, or turkey
- Cooked eggs
- Bananas and other fresh fruits
- Bread products made from refined, white flour
- Pasta or white rice
- Cereals such as cream of wheat, farina, oatmeal, and cornflakes
- Pancakes and waffles made with white flour
- Cornbread, prepared or served with very little honey or syrup
- Cooked vegetables, such as carrots, green beans, mushrooms, beets, asparagus tips, acorn squash, and peeled zucchini
- Some desserts and snacks, such as Jell-O, popsicles, cakes, cookies, or sherbet
- Baked potatoes
In general, removing seeds and skins from these foods is best.
Use low-fat milk, cheese, or yogurt. If dairy products are making the diarrhea worse or causing gas and bloating, your child may need to stop eating or drinking dairy products for a few days.
Children should be allowed to take their time returning to their normal eating habits. For some children, a return to their regular diet can also bring a return of diarrhea. This is often due to mild problems the gut has while absorbing regular foods.
Things Your Child Should Avoid Eating or Drinking
Children should avoid certain kinds of foods when they have diarrhea, including fried foods, greasy foods, processed or fast foods, pastries, donuts, and sausage.
Avoid giving children apple juice and full-strength fruit juices, as they can loosen stool.
Have your child limit or cut out milk and other dairy products if they are making diarrhea worse or causing gas and bloating.
Your child should avoid fruits and vegetables that can cause gas, such as broccoli, peppers, beans, peas, berries, prunes, chickpeas, green leafy vegetables, and corn.
Your child should also avoid caffeine and carbonated drinks at this time.
When children are ready for regular foods again, try giving them:
- Rice cereal
When to Call the Doctor
Call your child's provider if your child has any of these symptoms:
- Much less activity than normal (not sitting up at all or not looking around)
- Sunken eyes
- Dry and sticky mouth
- No tears when crying
- Not urinated for 6 hours
- Blood or mucus in the stool
- Fever that does not go away
- Stomach pain
Easter JS. Pediatric gastrointestinal disorders and dehydration. In: Bakes KM, Buchanan JA, Moreira ME, Byyny R, Pons PT, eds. Emergency Medicine Secrets. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 65.
Kotloff KL. Acute gastroenteritis in children. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 366.
Schiller LR, Sellin JH. Diarrhea. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 16.
Review Date: 12/10/2021
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.