Your child’s bowel movements will vary in consistency depending on his age and diet. Breastfeeding infants have up to 12 loose or runny stools per day, whereas formula-fed infants typically have 2 to 4 pasty stools per day. Toddlers and older children usually have one bowel movement every day or two. Diarrhea is the sudden appearance of bowel movements that are more frequent and looser than what is normal for your child. Mild diarrhea is the passage of a small number of mushy or loose stools. Moderate to severe diarrhea is the passage of large numbers of runny or explosive stools.
Diarrhea is usually caused by a viral infection of the gastrointestinal tract. Less commonly, gastroenteritis is caused by parasites or bacterial infections. Some other causes of diarrhea include food allergies, drinking too much juice, and lactose intolerance.
The common term for a viral infection of the intestinal tract is the “stomach flu,” though doctors call it gastroenteritis. The diarrhea that occurs is caused by injury to the lining of the intestine. This reduces the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients and causes a leakage of fluids into the large intestine.
The main complication of diarrhea is dehydration due to the loss of fluids from the body. Signs of dehydration include the following:
- reduced urine production
- dry mouth
- lack of tears
- sunken fontanelle (soft spot) in babies (It is normal for babies to have a slightly depressed fontanelle, so this sign is only helpful if you know what is normal for your child.)
- dry, “doughy” skin
If your child does not appear sick and has mild diarrhea, you can try to manage the condition by reducing his juice intake or removing lactose from his diet. If the symptoms persist, call your doctor for advice. If he has a fever, appears sick or dehydrated, has moderate to severe diarrhea, or is vomiting, you should call your doctor right away.
– Howard J. Bennett, M.D.