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What is the best way to deal with children's stomach upsets?

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Stomach upsets with symptoms that include diarrhoea and vomiting are usually caused by gastroenteritis. To help carers understand the best way to help a child with a stomach upset, health professionals have developed some guidelines.

How do I know if my child has gastroenteritis?

It is normal for babies to have occasional loose stools, or poo, especially breastfed babies. However, if a baby or child passes watery unformed stools at least 3 times in a 24-hour period, the child has diarrhoea. With or without vomiting, a sudden episode of diarrhoea in young children is often the result of gastroenteritis, commonly called a stomach upset, which can be caused by a virus or bacterial or protozoal infection. Other symptoms might include stomach pain, a raised temperature and aches and pains.

The symptoms of gastroenteritis may be worrying for parents, especially when a child is under the age of 5, but stomach upsets are very common among young children, with many in the UK having more than one episode a year. The symptoms may be mild or severe, with diarrhoea continuing a few days after any vomiting stops. When there is vomiting, it typically occurs for 1 or 2 days and usually stops within 3 days. Diarrhoea usually lasts 5 to 7 days and stops within 2 weeks. Most children will get better at home within a few days without needing to see a healthcare provider.

What should a parent do if a young child has a stomach upset?

The main concern in cases of gastroenteritis in young children under 5 years old is dehydration, when the body no longer has enough fluids to perform normal functions. To avoid dehydration, babies should continue to be given breast or formula feeds. For older children, the advice is to offer plenty of sips of plain water. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that children with gastroenteritis should avoid drinking fruit juices and fizzy drinks, particularly children at increased risk of dehydration.

Children who are more at risk of dehydration, and for whom urgent medical advice is required, include:

  • Those younger than a year old, but especially under 6 months old
  • Children who were very small at birth
  • Babies or children who are refusing milk feeds or other drinks
  • Those who have vomited three or more times within 24 hours
  • Those who have passed watery stools six or more times within 24 hours.

Regardless of risk, all children can become dehydrated, so parents should be on the look out for signs of dehydration. Signs of dehydration include:

  • Being irritable or drowsy
  • Having a dry mouth
  • Urinating less than usual
  • Eyes that look sunken into the head and appear deeper than normal
  • Breathing or heartbeat that is faster than normal.

Children who are showing signs of dehydration need prompt medical advice. Fluid replacement is essential and may simply be through drinking more fluids. Also, available from pharmacies, rehydration drinks contain mixtures of salts and sugars that help a child's body to retain enough water, and they can be given to the child at home. Severe dehydration can be a life-threatening condition and may require treatment in a hospital. Your doctor may also want to rule out other possibilities for your child's illness.

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