A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

What kids should eat and drink when sick

young body holding a banana as a smile

When you have sick kids, it can be hard to decide what foods they should eat and drinks they should drink when sick, especially if the child is a picky eater, at a challenging age or has allergies.

“Whether it’s the flu, a common cold, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, proper hydration is important for the body to heal and function properly,” said Dr. Amy Herbst, pediatrician with Marshfield Children’s.

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

Things to remember for all sickness

  • Push fluids. Dehydration is likely with many illnesses so make sure your child drinks enough liquids.
  • Encourage foods. It is important to provide food to children while they are sick because it offers support they need to overcome the illness. Specific recommendations for each type of sickness are below.
  • Monitor dehydration. Drinking less and urinating less than three times in 24 hours and drinking less are signs of dehydration. Call your pediatrician.
  • Call your pediatrician or the nurseline if you are concerned. Pay attention to how your child looks and acts, and trust your own gut. If you’re not sure about something regarding your child’s illness, call the nurseline at 844-342-6276.

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

RELATED ARTICLE: Make the right call for a sick child

Drink clear liquids, follow with bland diet for vomiting

If your child is vomiting, Herbst recommends a clear liquid diet first to see if they can keep it down.

“My typical approach for vomiting is to first try a clear liquid diet,” Dr. Herbst said. “Then, if your child is able to take that without vomiting, the next step is offering bland foods like those in the BRAT diet.”

This BRAT diet encourages children to eat bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. BRAT foods have little flavor and are low in fat, making it less likely to upset the stomach.

“Crackers, dry cereal, oatmeal, potatoes and broth are also a good place to start,” Dr. Herbst said. “Advance to a regular diet as your child can tolerate it.”

The BRAT diet is a short-term diet. If your child continues to vomit 24-48 hours after starting the BRAT diet, talk to your doctor.

Liquid diet instructions:

  • Start with a clear liquid diet. Gatorade, Powerade and Pedialyte are good examples because they have sugars and electrolytes that plain water does not. Jell-O, popsicles and broth are also acceptable choices.
  • 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. Advance to a regular diet as tolerated.

Eat a balanced diet for diarrhea

When a child is sick with diarrhea, dehydration is the primary concern. Beyond hydration, it is recommended to continue to eat a balanced diet when you have sick kids with diarrhea.

This includes eating complex carbohydrates and foods with protein.

“Research has shown children that eat a balanced diet do just fine recovering from diarrhea,” said Dr. Herbst.

The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends the BRAT diet for diarrhea because these foods are also low in fiber, fat and protein.

Fiber for constipation

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

Dr. Herbst recommends your child eat fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals to help when you have sick kids with constipation.

Don’t forget water. “Fiber needs enough water intake to do its job,” Dr. 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.

Continue to eat and drink for cold and flu symptoms

Like all illnesses, eat a balanced diet and drink a lot of fluids for a common cold and flu.

Warm liquid foods like soup soothe symptoms, but make sure to avoid spicy or high-fat soups.

RELATED ARTICLE: Should you “Starve a cold, feed a fever?”

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

Download this eating and drinking for a sick child graphic

Visual chart about feeding and caring for a sick child

Have concerns about your child being sick? Talk to someone at Marshfield Children’s.

Schedule appointment Call the nurseline at 844-342-6276

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