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Diarrhoea in babies and children

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Diarrhoea is usually caused by an infection or virus.
  • Diarrhoea is a symptom that causes more frequent and loose bowel movements.
  • Regularly wash your hands, particularly before feeding and after nappy changes to reduce the spread of infection.
  • Medicines to reduce vomiting and diarrhoea are not recommended unless advised by a doctor.
  • Babies under 6 months old are at higher risk of dehydration and should be checked by a doctor if they have diarrhoea.

What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is a symptom where someone has are more frequent or looser bowel movements and they pass 3 or more loose or liquid stools (poos) per day. Poo that is soft, formed and solid, is not diarrhoea.

What is considered diarrhoea in babies?

Most babies have occasional loose stools (poo). Breastfed babies have looser poos than formula-fed babies.

Diarrhoea is when your baby frequently passes unformed, watery poos. It can be caused by an infection and may be accompanied by vomiting. This is called gastroenteritis (a stomach bug), which is usually caused by a virus, such as rotavirus.

Diarrhoea and vomiting are more serious in babies than older children because babies can easily lose too much fluid from their bodies and become dehydrated. They may become lethargic or irritable, have a dry mouth, and have a pale or washed-out colour. If your baby becomes dehydrated, they may not pass much urine and they may go off their feeds. It may be difficult to tell how much urine they’re passing when they have diarrhoea.

Severe dehydration is a medical emergency and can be fatal. If your baby shows signs of severe dehydration, seek urgent medical attention.

What should I do if my baby has diarrhoea?

If you're baby has diarrhoea, do not stop giving your baby breast milk or formula. Give them extra feeds to avoid them becoming dehydrated. If your baby is unwell, they may find it easier to drink smaller amounts more often.

Don't give your baby medicines to reduce the vomiting and diarrhoea. They do not work and may be harmful. Speak your doctor, child health nurse or pharmacist about giving your baby oral rehydration fluids in between feeds or after each watery stool.

If your baby drinks from a bottle, make sure bottles are sterilised carefully.

Keep your baby away from other children as much as possible until the diarrhoea has stopped.

When should my baby see a doctor?

Babies under 6 months old should always be checked by a doctor if they have vomiting and diarrhoea because they are at higher risk of dehydration.

Signs that your baby may be unwell include:

  • lethargy
  • poor feeding
  • fever
  • passing less urine
  • vomiting that has lasted more than a day
  • sunken fontanelle

What is considered diarrhoea in toddlers and older children?

Diarrhoea in children is when they pass 3 or more loose or liquid stools (poos) per day. If the stools are soft, formed and solid, then it is not diarrhoea.

Some children between the ages of 1 and 5 pass frequent, smelly, loose stools that may contain recognisable foods, such as carrots and peas. These children are usually perfectly healthy and are growing normally. This type of diarrhoea is known as ‘toddler diarrhoea’.

What should I do if my child has diarrhoea?

If your child has diarrhoea, give them plenty of clear drinks to replace the fluid that's been lost, but only give them food if they want it. Don't give them fruit juice or cordial, as these drinks can cause further diarrhoea.

Don't give your child medicines for diarrhoea or vomiting. They do not work and can be harmful. Speak your doctor or pharmacist about giving your child oral rehydration fluids.

When should my child see a doctor?

You should take your child to the doctor if:

  • they are vomiting, have diarrhoea and they’re not drinking
  • they have a lot of diarrhoea (8 to 10 watery poos, or 2 to 3 large poos per day) or if the diarrhoea doesn’t improve after 10 days
  • they are vomiting and can’t keep any fluids down
  • they are dehydrated (fewer wet nappies, not weeing, dark yellow or brown wee, dry lips and mouth)
  • they have bad stomach pain, blood in their poo or green vomit
  • you are worried

How can I prevent the spread of diarrhoea?

Here are some tips to prevent diarrhoea illnesses from spreading:

  • wash your child’s hands frequently using liquid soap in warm running water and dry with a clean or paper towel
  • keep toilets clean and wash towels frequently
  • make sure everyone in your family washes their hands regularly with soap and warm water to avoid spreading the infection
  • don’t share towels

Your child shouldn’t return to school or childcare until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.

Resources and support

Speak your doctor or pharmacist about how you can treat diarrhoea.

Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). You can get health advice 24 hours a day.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2023

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