Appearance, Causes, and Treatment of Baby Diarrhea

How Breastfeeding Can Make a Difference

Mother changing a newborn's cloth diaper.
Vanessa Davies/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Diarrhea is one of the most common childhood issues in the United States and around the world. It can be scary and dangerous. But, when you have a newborn or young infant, it's not always easy to tell the difference between normal poop and diarrhea. Here's how to tell if your baby has diarrhea, along with information about the causes, treatments, and dangers of diarrhea in newborns and infants.

Regular Baby Poop vs. Diarrhea

Normal baby poop can be a variety of colors and consistencies. It's even typical for newborns to have many bowel movements each day. So, how can you tell if your baby's bowel movements are normal or if your child has diarrhea?

Regular baby poop can look yellow, tan, brown, or green. It can be runny, soft, thick like paste, or more formed. A baby can have several poopy diapers a day or just one or two. What you find in your baby's diaper has a lot to do with your baby's age and diet.

Newborns can have a bowel movement in every diaper change, while older children may poop once a day or once every few days. How you feed your baby also affects her bowel movements.

Breastfed Baby Poop: If you breastfeed, and your baby's poop is yellowish and soft or runny with small curds or seeds in it, you don't have to worry. That's typical of breastfed baby poop, and it's OK if you see it every time you change the diaper. But, since breast milk bowel movements can be loose and runny, it may be harder to tell the difference between normal poop and diarrhea.

Formula Poop: Babies who drink infant formula, have bowel movements that tend to be shades of tan to brown. They are often thicker or firmer than breast milk poop. It is usually easier to notice the change in bowel movements and identify diarrhea in formula-fed infants.

Combination Poop: If you feed your child both breast milk and formula, the poopy diapers will be some combination of the two types above.

As you can see, there's a wide range when it comes to normal baby poop. It only becomes a concern, if you notice any changes to your child's normal poop. One looser-than-normal or watery poop is not usually something to worry about. But, two or more could mean diarrhea.

Baby Diarrhea may be:

  • Loose, wet, watery
  • Greener or darker than normal
  • Foul smelling
  • Bloody or containing mucus

Causes

A baby can get diarrhea for many reasons. Here are some of the general causes of diarrhea for all babies along with some causes related to breastfeeding and formula-feeding.

General Causes for All Infants

Regardless of the type of feeding, diarrhea can develop in any child due to:

  • Illness: Viruses, bacteria, fungal organisms, and parasites can cause infections that lead to diarrhea in children. Children in daycare and those who spend time around other children can catch germs that spread easily through contact with each other or toys.
  • Starting Solid Foods: Changes in your baby's diet can lead to changes in your baby's bowel movements. Dairy products, eggs, gluten, peanuts, and shellfish can cause food allergies and sensitivities that lead to diarrhea.
  • Certain Medications: If your baby has to take medicine such as antibiotics, it could upset her stomach and cause loose stools.
  • Travel: Just as adults can develop diarrhea when traveling, so can children. Infants and young children may have an even higher risk. Be extra cautious when traveling with young infants.
  • Medical Conditions: Some medical conditions, such as inflammation of the bowels can cause diarrhea.
  • Teething: Teething itself is not likely the cause of diarrhea. However, teething babies put everything in their mouth. Germs on toys, teethers, and little hands can easily find their way into your child's body leading to illness and diarrhea.
  • Unknown: Sometimes there is not an obvious cause for baby diarrhea.

Breastfeeding

Along with the general causes above, breastfed babies can develop diarrhea from:

  • A Mother's Diet: Some foods in your diet can cause allergies and sensitivities in your breastfed baby. Cow's milk, chocolate, gassy foods, spicy foods, and caffeine are the foods most likely to trigger a problem. You may have to evaluate your diet to try to figure out if something that you're eating could be causing your baby's diarrhea.
  • A Mother's Use of Laxatives: Stool softeners and some mild fiber supplements or bulk-forming type laxatives are usually safe to use while you're breastfeeding. However, strong stimulant-type laxatives may pass to your baby and cause diarrhea. Talk to your doctor before taking a laxative when you're breastfeeding.
  • Weaning in the U.S. and Other Developed Countries: The introduction of new foods into an infant's diet can lead to stomach issues due to food sensitivities and allergies. Cow's milk is a common irritant that can cause diarrhea in younger children. If you're weaning to infant formula, keep in mind that many formulas are made from cow's milk.
  • Weaning in Other Parts of the World: In some areas of the world, health and nutrition are compromised. Children living in these areas are more prone to illness, infection, and disease once they've weaned from the breast and they're no longer receiving the nutrition and protective properties found in breast milk.

    Formula Feeding

    Along with the general causes above, newborns and infants who drink infant formula can develop diarrhea from:

    • Allergy to Formula: Newborns can get diarrhea from an allergy or sensitivity to the type of infant formula they begin to take. Many brands of infant formula are made from cow's milk, and the protein in cow's milk can cause a food allergy in babies. Infants can also have a sensitivity to soy-based formula.
    • Contamination: Germs can make their way into infant formula in many ways. The powder can become contaminated, there may be germs in the water that you add to the powder or concentrate, and organisms can grow if the formula is not stored correctly.

    Effects

    When a baby has diarrhea, fluids leave the body. If the baby loses more fluids than he takes in through feedings, he can become dehydrated. Dehydration in newborns and young children can happen very quickly. The signs of dehydration to keep an eye out for include:

    • Less than six wet diapers a day (24 hours)
    • Dry mouth and lips
    • A lack of tears when the baby is crying
    • Poor feeding
    • A sunken or curved downward soft spot on top of the baby's head
    • Irritability

    If you notice the signs of dehydration, call the doctor right away.

    Treatment

    Treating diarrhea in babies is centered around keeping the baby hydrated. If the diarrhea is mild, you can often manage it yourself at home.  

    1. The most important thing you can do to treat diarrhea in infants is to continue to feed your baby. Breastfeed or offer the bottle more frequently while your child has loose stools to provide extra fluids. 
    2. You should not stop feedings to try to rest your child's stomach. A baby can become dehydrated very quickly without feedings, especially if the baby is losing fluids through diarrhea.
    3. If you're breastfeeding and your child is taking feedings well, you do not need to give your child an oral rehydration fluid such as Pedialyte unless the doctor instructs you to do so. Breast milk contains the fluids and nutrition your baby needs to replace what she's losing through diarrhea. There are also antibodies in your breast milk that help your baby fight off infection and disease. 
    4. If you are bottle feeding, do not dilute infant formula (or breast milk) to give your child extra water. Feed your child as you always would. You should only give your child additional fluids such as Pedialyte if your doctor recommends it.
    1. The doctor may order an antibiotic for your child if the diarrhea is due to an illness or infection.
    2. Soiled diapers can irritate your baby's skin and cause a diaper rash, so change wet and dirty diapers often. Try to keep your baby's diaper area as clean and dry as possible. Using a diaper ointment after each change can be soothing and add a protective barrier to your child's skin. Be sure to wash your hands after each diaper change to prevent the spread of germs.
    3. Avoid giving your child over-the-counter medication for diarrhea. Anti-diarrheal medicine can be harmful to babies, so it's not recommended. 
    4. Keep an eye out for the signs of dehydration listed above. Severe diarrhea that leads to dehydration may require treatment with intravenous (IV) fluids in the hospital.
    5. Depending on the cause of diarrhea, it can be contagious and spread to others in your family. So, wash your hands after changing your child's diaper or using the bathroom, and remind other family members to do the same.

    When to Call the Doctor

    Diarrhea can be dangerous for newborns and young children since it can lead to dehydration and weight loss. An occasional loose poop is not usually a problem. However, if you see two or more watery bowel movements, your baby may have diarrhea. Call your baby's doctor right away if:

    • you have a newborn
    • your child has a fever or other symptoms along with diarrhea
    • there is blood in your baby's poop
    • your child appears to be in pain
    • the baby is not eating well
    • the baby is excessively sleepy
    • diarrhea does not go away within 24 hours
    • you notice any of the signs of dehydration

    Breastfeeding and Infant Formula

    Diarrhea is so common that in children under five years old there are up to 35 million cases of diarrhea each year in the United States and approximately 1.7 billion cases worldwide. Babies and young children can experience an episode of diarrhea about twice a year. It affects children who take infant formula, those who breastfeed, and babies who take a combination of breast milk and infant formula. Although, there are some differences.

    Studies show that breastfed babies get diarrhea less often than formula-fed babies. Since breast milk is full of antibodies, it helps protect infants against some of the common childhood illnesses including diarrhea. Plus, when a baby is breastfeeding, there's limited exposure to organisms in food and water that can cause stomach infections and diarrhea.

    The more a baby breastfeeds, the more protection he receives. Exclusive breastfeeding is better than partial breastfeeding, and partial breastfeeding protects better than full formula feeding.

    A Word From Verywell

    It's natural to worry about your newborn or infant. And, a baby's bowel movements can certainly be a part of that, especially for new moms. From that first thick, sticky, black meconium poop to the changes in frequency, color, and texture of the movements over the first few weeks and months, it's certainly a learning experience. The range of normal can be surprising. It can also make it hard to tell when the baby is having a bowel issue such as diarrhea.

    It may be scary at first, but before you know it, you will have a good understanding of what's normal for your child. Then, you'll be able to tell when something is different from that norm. Of course, if you're worried or have any questions about your baby's poop or health, you should contact your baby's doctor.

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