Diarrhea in Toddlers – Common Causes And Treatment Options

Diarrhea in toddlers can be a source of worry for mothers. Knowing the reason behind the diarrhea can go a long way to alleviating our fears, however. Diarrhea can range from mild diarrhea, such as that caused by medication, to severe diarrhea, usually caused by bacterial infections, for example.

It can be a symptom of a number of non-infectious diseases and conditions, and can also indicate food allergies, lactose intolerance, or diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Diarrhea commonly affects many toddlers, and there are many causes attributed to it, some of which are mentioned below.

  • Viral infections – Some infections that are common in toddlers are adenovirus, calicivirus, astrovirus and rotavirus. Rotavirus causes gastroenteritis, or “stomach flu”, in toddlers.  It usually lasts 1-2 days and causes diarrhea, vomiting, tummy pain, fever, aching limbs, and sometimes blood or mucus can be found your toddler’s stools.  Most toddlers experience mild symptoms, but diarrhea often continues beyond the first few days, up to 2 weeks after the initial infection.
  • Bacterial infections – Bacterial infections like E.coli, salmonella enteritidis, campylobacter, and shigella can cause toddlers severe diarrhea, cramps, fever and blood in the stool.   These infections usually last longer than viral infections, and some can be very serious.
  • Parasitic infections – Toddlers pick up parasitic infections like Giardia parasite (rare) and Cryptosporidium parasite in public places like swimming pools or child-care facilities, or through contaminated water supplies.  They require treatment by a doctor as parasites do not disappear on their own.  Symptoms in toddlers include diarrhea, bloating, nausea, cramps, gas, and greasy stools.
  • Enteroviruses – Coxsackie virus is similar to the common cold, and occurs mostly during the summer months.  It can be accompanied by a diarrhea, fever, sore throat and a runny nose.  Group A coxsackie virus causes a rash, which includes small blisters in the mouth, on the soles of the feet and on the hands, and is called hand-foot-mouth disease (HFMD). Coxsackie virus can become serious in some toddlers, and lead to respiratory infections, meningitis, encephalitis, pleurodynia, and myopericarditis.  But most toddlers experience mild symptoms and do not require treatment.
  • Medication –Antibiotics are indiscriminate, and kill off ‘good’ as well as ‘bad’ bacteria in the intestines.  This affects the delicate balance in the colon, and can result in diarrhea.
  • Food allergies –Certain foods are known to cause 90% of food allergies, for example, shellfish, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, soy and wheat.  Symptoms experienced from food allergies can start within minutes or hours after eating.  Depending on whether the reaction is mild or severe, symptoms can range from diarrhea, gas, abdominal pain and blood in the stool; to a rash, itching, hives, chest pain, swelling of the face or lips, and trouble swallowing or breathing.  Should your toddler have difficulty breathing, get medical help immediately.
  • Food intolerance–Lactose intolerance is common, and is when your toddler is unable to digest the lactose (sugar) in milk and other dairy products.  This irritates the stomach and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain.
  • Fruit juice– Toddlers tend to drink too much fruit juice and then suffer from diarrhea.  It is recommended that toddlers should not consume more than 4 to 6 ounces of fruit juice per day.
  • Food poisoning–This occurs when your toddler eats food or drinks water that is contaminated with bacteria, which can then cause gastroenteritis.  Symptoms come on quickly and are usually resolved within 24 hours.  Vomiting, diarrhea and fever are some of the symptoms, which vary from child to child.
  • Teething – Although not a proven medical fact, many mothers find that diarrhea coincides with the onset of teething.
  • Chronic nonspecific diarrhea, or ‘Toddler’s Diarrhea’ – This is a more persistent type of diarrhea, occurring from 3 to up to 10 times per day, and lasting more than 7 days.  It is more common in boys, and a low-fat, low-fiber or high sugar diet can be the cause.  It is not serious and usually the child grows out of it by the age of 6.  Often no treatment is needed, as long as the child stays healthy, but this needs to be determined by a doctor.

Some of the more serious diseases behind diarrhea in toddlers are Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and Celiac disease.

Treatment of Diarrhea in Children

Diarrhea is often accompanied by symptoms like vomiting, fever, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea, and dehydration. Viral infections can cause diarrhea to last up to 2 weeks, and in this case you need to watch out that your child doesn’t get dehydrated.

What Can I Feed my Child?

To prevent dehydration, make sure your toddler drinks plenty of fluids, for example, milk and water.  Avoid fruit juices, carbonated drinks, athletic drinks and sugar water as they tend to make the diarrhea worse.  Oral rehydration solutions can also quickly replace lost body fluids, however please check with your doctor before giving these to your toddler.

Preferably give your child foods that are easily digested, such as rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, dried cereals, bread, crackers and soft-boiled eggs. Yogurt is high in probiotics, which are healthy bacteria and will assist in replacing the unhealthy bacteria in your child’s gastrointestinal tract. Small portions of lean meats and fruits and vegetables are also safe to eat, and they supply essential nutrients that help to fight infection.  This is assuming, of course, that your toddler wants to eat anything at all!  If this is the case, giving him milk or milk products would be the best idea.


Should your toddler be vomiting or experiencing mild to severe diarrhea, watch him carefully for signs of dehydration.  Severe dehydration can lead to seizures, brain damage, and even death.

Signs to watch out for are:

  • Your toddler is urinating very little, or the urine is dark yellow. No wet diapers in 6-8 hours.
  • Your toddler’s mouth is dry or sticky.
  • Very few or no tears when crying.
  • Sunken eyes.
  • The fontanelle, or soft spot on top of your child’s head, appears sunken.
  • Your toddler is lethargic, irritable or light-headed.

When to Call the Doctor

Most toddlers’ immune systems manage to fight off viral infections, which are the most common causes of diarrhea in toddlers. He will recover after a few days of your tender loving care, lots of fluids and rest.

However, in the following cases, get medical attention immediately:

  • Your toddler is showing signs of dehydration.
  • If your toddler has more than 8 watery stools over 8 hours.
  • Your toddler is vomiting repeatedly and cannot keep fluids down.
  • If you see any blood or mucus in your toddler’s stools.

And check with your pediatrician as to what treatment can be given in the following cases:

  • If your toddler’s fever lasts more than 3 days.
  • Mild diarrhea lasts more than 2 weeks.
  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • Your toddler is drowsy and looks confused.
  • You feel your toddler’s condition is getting worse.

Your toddler’s life may be at risk when dealing with food poisoning or a food allergy, so do not hesitate to get medical help immediately, if in doubt.


Of course, we mothers would be much happier our toddlers did not contract these infections in the first place!  There are some things that can make it more difficult for your toddler to pick them up, and these include:

  • Teach your toddler to wash his hands properly after using the toilet, and also before eating.
  • And mothers shouldn’t forget to wash hands after changing his diaper, and before dealing with food.
  • The syndrome ‘Toddler’s Diarrhea’ is helped by giving your child a healthier diet, consisting of a balanced amount of fats, protein, fiber, fruits and veggies.
  • Check food labels to avoid allergy-triggers.  See your pediatrician and have your toddler tested to see exactly what he is allergic to.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables well.
  • Make sure that pets’ feeding areas are kept well away from your eating areas.

We hope these recommendations go some way to help keep your toddlers healthy!