It can be very concerning to see your baby or child having bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting. This helpful information aims to explain some of the common causes and strategies to help you alleviate your child’s symptoms.
Diarrhoea and vomiting is a common illness, especially in children.
Vomiting (being sick) usually stops within three days. Diarrhoea usually lasts five to seven days and stops within two weeks.
Most babies have occasional loose stools or faeces (poo) and breastfed babies normally have looser stools than formula-fed babies.
Diarrhoea in a baby describes frequent, repeated passing of unformed, watery stools.
Toddlers and older children
Some children between the ages of one and five pass frequent, smelly, loose stools that may contain recognisable foods, such as carrots and peas. Usually, these children are otherwise perfectly healthy and are growing normally. Sometimes the doctor can’t find any cause.
Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
Causes of diarrhoea and vomiting in children
Diarrhoea and vomiting may be caused by many different things, including:
- a viral infection
- a stomach bug
- food poisoning
- eating something you may have an allergy to.
Diarrhoea can be caused by an infection and may be accompanied by vomiting. This is called gastroenteritis (a stomach bug), and it's usually caused by a virus. Most stomach bugs are more common in formula-fed than breastfed babies.
Treatments for diarrhoea and vomiting in children
Diarrhoea and vomiting is 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 loose, pale or mottled skin; their eyes and fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of their head) may become sunken.
If they become dehydrated they may not pass much urine. They may lose their appetite and have cold hands and feet. It may be difficult to tell how much urine they're passing when they have diarrhoea.
If your baby becomes dehydrated they will need extra fluids. You can buy oral rehydration fluids from your local pharmacy or chemist, or get a prescription from your doctor.
If your baby has passed six or more diarrhoeal stools in the past 24 hours, or if your baby has vomited three times or more in the past 24 hours it’s time to contact your doctor for advice. It can be too difficult to replace all the lost fluids with extra feeds and medical attention may be required.
Seek urgent medical attention if your baby is unwell and showing any of the following:
- less responsive
- not passing much urine
- vomiting has lasted more than a day
- you are concerned.
Contact your doctor if your child has:
- diarrhoea and is vomiting at the same time
- diarrhoea that's particularly watery, has blood in it or lasts for longer than two or three days
- severe or continuous stomach ache.
Anti-diarrhoeal drugs (not prescribed by the doctor) may be dangerous, so don't give these. Oral rehydration treatment can help, and your pharmacist can advise you about rehydration products available.
Your child will have large, runny, frequent or watery faeces (poos). The colour of the poo might vary from brown to green, and the smell can be quite offensive.
Diarrhoea might also be associated with stomach cramps or pain.
Contact your doctor or go to your local emergency department if your child has:
- had six or more episodes of diarrhoea in the past 24 hours
- diarrhoea and is vomiting at the same time
- diarrhoea that is particularly watery
- diarrhoea that has blood in it
- diarrhoea that lasts for longer than two weeks
- diarrhoea and you are concerned.
Diarrhoea and vomiting self care
If your child has diarrhoea and vomiting there are a number of things you can do to help manage their condition. Here is some self-help information:
Feeding and meal times
- Breast and bottle fed babies should continue to be given their normal feeds (at normal strength). Do not make milk formula in advance to be stored for later feeds as the bacteria in the bottles can cause further health problems.
- If your child is on solid foods, be guided by their appetite. There is no evidence that fasting benefits someone with diarrhoea and vomiting.
- If your baby is under one year old, you should try to give them more fluids to avoid them becoming dehydrated.
- Older children should eat normally. Foods high in carbohydrates, like bread, potatoes, pasta and rice are good, and soup will also help replace fluids.
- Maintain good personal hygiene.
- With formula-fed babies, make sure that bottles are sterilised extremely carefully.
- Encourage your child to drink their usual amount of fluids. Children lose fluids through vomiting so your child will require extra fluids and water is the best for them.
- Specially prepared children’s rehydration drinks can be bought from your local pharmacy. Always follow the instructions on the packet.
- If your child refuses rehydration drinks try diluting fruit juice or soft drink with water.
- Sports drinks and energy drinks should be avoided as a rehydration fluid option.
- Don't give your child any medicines to stop diarrhoea. It's best that any diarrhoea (and the virus or bacteria that caused it) leaves the body.
- Antibiotics are not usually given to treat diarrhoea and vomiting, as the cause of the condition may be due to a virus. Antibiotics only work on fighting bacteria and not viruses.
- Keep your child away from people who have a weakened immune system while your child is unwell.
Hygiene and cleanliness
- For babies and children who wear nappies, a barrier cream may help to prevent soreness or nappy rash developing.
- Ensure your child’s bottom is cleaned gently and thoroughly, after each episode of diarrhoea to avoid irritation to the skin.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm running water to prevent the spread of infection. Dry your hands thoroughly but do not share towels as this can spread an infection. Wash your hands:
- Before handling food, including babies’ bottles
- Before eating
- After going to the toilet or changing your child’s nappy
- After cleaning up blood, faeces or vomit
- After wiping a nose, either your child’s or your own
- After handling garbage
- Clean surfaces – washing with detergent and water is a very effective way of removing germs from surfaces you have touched.
- Do not share personal items – your child should use their own personal items, such as towels, toothbrushes, flannels or face cloths.
- If your child has diarrhoea, organise a separate toilet to other people if possible and clean it with disinfectant after use.
- Do not take your child swimming until two weeks after their last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.
- If your child has diarrhoea or vomiting they should not go to school or day care for 48 hours after their last episode of either.
- If your child has been diagnosed with Norovirus, or has diarrhoea and vomiting following contact with someone else with Norovirus, disinfect any surface that may have been contaminated.
- Immediately remove and wash clothing or bedding contaminated with diarrhoea or vomit.
- If your child has diarrhoea or vomiting, they may feel tired and irritable. Always place your baby on their back in their cot to sleep, as this position reduces the risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your child's diarrhoea and vomiting, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: July 2015