Toddler's Diarrhea

A Pediatrician Explains the Common Causes and Treatments

Mother with her hand on little girl's belly

Matthias Tunger / Getty Images

There are many possible causes of diarrhea in toddlers. Here are some common ones. 

  • A milk allergy, lactose intolerance, or another underlying health condition may be causing malabsorption.
  • An infection, such as giardiasis, could be the trigger.
  • "Toddler's diarrhea" (also known as chronic non-specific diarrhea of childhood) is another possible cause and is often related to excessive fruit juice (fructose) consumption. Toddler's diarrhea usually begins between the ages of six months and 30 months and goes away by the time the child is about four years old. Children with "toddlers diarrhea" typically pass two to six watery stools each day, but may otherwise appear well and gain weight appropriately for their age.

How to Treat Diarrhea in Young Kids

Try to keep a record for a week or so to see when, exactly, diarrhea occurs—the date, the time of day, the date and time of your child's last meal, and what the last meal consisted of. It may sound like a lot of work, but you may see a pattern develop, which can provide clues to a possible cause.

For example, if you notice that your kid tends to have symptoms primarily after eating milk or dairy, then you may want to ask his pediatrician if it's alright to eliminate those types of foods from his diet. 

If you think that your child may have toddler's diarrhea, there are some key things that you can do.

  • Limit fruit juice or stop giving it to your child altogether, especially juices that are high in fructose or sorbitol, like apple juice and pear juice. White grape juice is a better option. Remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting daily fruit juice to just 4 to 6 ounces for children who are between the ages of 1 and 6. Even small amounts of juice may be too much for some children, and those with toddler's diarrhea might benefit from eliminating juice from their diets altogether.
  • Increase the amount of fat in your child's diet (talk to your pediatrician about this, though, so you don't end up giving your child too many high-fat foods, which isn't healthy).
  • Increase the amount of fiber in your child's diet. (Note: This recommendation can be confusing since a high-fiber diet is supposed to help kids who are constipated, but fiber seems to help many different kinds of gastrointestinal disorders.)

Another general dietary strategy is to try adding foods to their diet that are known to cause constipation (the opposite of diarrhea). For example, children who consume a lot of whole cow's milk and other dairy products, and those who eat bananas or cooked carrots often become constipated. So if you increase the amounts of those foods in the diet of a child who has diarrhea, it might help his stools become more firm. 

When Your Toddler Should Be Seen by a Pediatrician for Diarrhea

If you've tried all the methods described above and they're not working, if your child has any other unusual symptoms (such as a fever), or if their diarrhea has been going on for some time, then you should see your child's pediatrician. They may choose to order stool cultures to check for parasites and bacterial infections. If the cause is a bacterial infection, for instance, the doctor might be able to prescribe an antibiotic drug that can help get rid of the infection (and diarrhea). 

If your child is very fussy, has greasy stools that are very foul-smelling, or if they are not gaining weight appropriately, then your pediatrician might be more aggressive in looking for a medical cause for your child's loose stools.

It is important to work on solving this problem, not only so your child feels better (explosive bowel movements are no fun), but also because loose stools are bound to make it much more difficult to get them potty trained.

1 Source
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. The Use and Misuse of Fruit Juice in Pediatrics. Pediatrics. 2001;107(5):1210-1213. doi:10.1542/peds.107.5.1210

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.