A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Keep a sick child eating

young body holding a banana as a smileIf you have kids, you know there is no cookie-cutter formula for feeding a sick child.

So what do you do, especially if the child is a picky eater, at a challenging age or has allergies?

Marshfield Clinic nutritionist Chrisanne Urban and pediatrician Amy Herbst come to the rescue with tips and examples.

Three words: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

“Whether it’s the flu, a common cold, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation,” Urban said, “proper hydration gets rid of any illness and keeps the body healthy.”

Monitor how much your child drinks. If it’s less than normal and he doesn’t urinate at least three times a day, contact your pediatrician, Herbst said.

Vomiting or diarrhea: BRAT diet can help

The BRAT diet is a decade-old recommendation to eat bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Why? Each of these has little flavor and are low in fat.

Think bland. BRAT foods are less likely to upset the stomach but will provide nutrients a sick body needs.

If your child has diarrhea, you can begin the BRAT diet immediately.

Approach vomiting differently. Herbst recommends trying clear liquids before BRAT diet foods.

“My typical approach for vomiting is to first try a clear liquid diet,” Herbst said. “Then, if your child goes 24 hours without vomiting, the next step is offering foods in the BRAT diet.”

Liquid diet instructions:

  • Start with a clear liquid diet. Gatorade, Powerade, Pedialyte and Jell-O are good examples because they have sugars and electrolytes plain water doesn’t.
  • Frequently give liquids at room temperature in small amounts, ½-1 ounce, every 10-15 minutes until your child demonstrates he can drink clear liquids without vomiting. Then start giving more each time.
  • If vomiting occurs again, wait 45-60 minutes before offering liquids again. This gives time for the tummy to settle.
  • After 24 hours of no vomiting, begin the BRAT diet.

Fiber for constipation

Fiber-rich foods can help a hurting, constipated tummy.

Herbst and Urban recommend fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals to help with constipation.

Don’t forget water. “Fiber needs enough water intake to work its best,” Herbst said.

As a daily fiber guide, add your child’s age to 5 grams of fiber, Herbst said. For example, if your child is 2, adding 5 grams of fiber means your child should have 7 grams daily.

Treating common colds

Like all illnesses, treat common colds with liquids.

Warm liquid foods like soup soothe symptoms, but avoid spicy or high-fat soups, Urban said, and using the BRAT diet as a guide cannot hurt.

Should you “Starve a cold, feed a fever?”

This guide for feeding and caring for a sick child is helpful when you need it.

Visual chart about feeding and caring for a sick child
Things to remember for all of the above:

  • Push fluids. Dehydration is likely with many illnesses so make sure your child drinks enough liquids.
  • Try a bland, low-fat diet. Try BRAT – bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. Spicy and greasy foods will make your child feel worse.
  • Call your pediatrician if your child’s fever lasts for more than 72 hours or reaches 105F. Pay attention to how your child looks and acts: Does she look ill? Lethargic? If you answer “yes,” call your pediatrician even if the fever is low or hasn’t been present 72 hours or more.
  • Monitor dehydration. Urinating less than three times in 24 hours and drinking less are signs of dehydration. Call your pediatrician.
  • Get a second opinion. If you’re not sure about anything regarding your child’s illness, call your pediatrician or use the nurse hotline.

“Kids don’t always know how to tell us what’s going on,” Urban said. “If you’re ever unsure about symptoms, treatments or food options, contact your provider. Better safe than sorry.”

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