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Diarrhoea in babies

If a baby's poo is suddenly much looser or more watery and is more frequent and profuse, the baby may have diarrhoea.

The appearance of a baby's stools, or poo, usually fluctuates with the baby's diet, which can affect the texture, colour, and odour of poo. Bottle-fed babies will normally have bulkier, paler coloured and stronger smelling poo than breast-fed babies, for example.

Compared with an adult's stool, baby poo may seem less solid at first. However, once solid foods are introduced baby's poo should become thicker and larger, more closely resembling adult poo.

If the baby's stools suddenly become watery with less shape, your baby may have diarrhoea. The symptoms can be uncomfortable for a baby and severe diarrhoea can lead to dehydration. Diarrhoea is common in babies and young children but in most cases it is no more than an unpleasant disruption to a baby's normal care and can be treated at home.

What signs indicate diarrhoea in a baby?

Sometimes a baby may produce poo that is looser than normal, but an occasional bout of loose stools is normal and no cause for parents to be worried. However, the baby may have diarrhoea if the stools suddenly become loose or watery, if they occur more frequently, and they are more abundant.

Diarrhoea typically lasts between 5 and 7 days. There might be only slight diarrhoea for a couple of days or it may be more severe and last for several days.

What can cause diarrhoea in a baby?

The most common reason a baby might have diarrhoea is an infection from a virus. This is referred to as gastroenteritis and it can occur with or without vomiting. Gastroenteritis can also be caused by exposure to bacteria or parasites.

Viruses, bacteria, and parasites can be passed to a baby from person-to-person contact, through consuming contaminated food or water, or if the baby touches a contaminated surface, such as a toilet, and then places a hand in his or her mouth.

When does diarrhoea in a baby require medical help?

The main concern is that frequent watery stools can change the balance of water and electrolytes in a baby, causing him or her to become dehydrated. Babies can become dehydrated very quickly, especially newborns.

Symptoms of dehydration in a baby include:

  • Less urination than normal – and fewer wet nappies
  • Irritability such as fussiness and more crying
  • Crying with no tears or dry mouth
  • Unusual drowsiness or lethargy, with the baby less active than normal
  • The soft spot on the top of the baby's head (the fontanelle) is sunken
  • Sunken eyes
  • The skin loses its elasticity, so doesn't spring back when gently pinched and released

Dehydration in children can be life-threatening, particularly in babies. If you are worried about signs of dehydration in your baby, seek medical advice from your doctor, health visitor, or NHS advice line. However, if the child is lethargic or floppy or has a dry mouth, call 999 or take the baby to a hospital's accident and emergency (A&E) department.

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