Although many common childhood illnesses are hard on kids and their parents, those that affect a youngster’s appetite can be especially tough to endure. There are generally two types of non-chronic illness that will affect your child’s eating: those that involve the ear, nose and throat, and those that affect the intestines. I am referring specifically to upper respiratory infections and diarrhea, both of which are all too common in young children.
In the case of diarrhea and vomiting, infants and children can dehydrate quickly, so the pediatrician must be contacted immediately. Usually, your child’s doctor will order a rehydration solution to replace the sodium and potassium lost in the stools or vomit. Please don’t diagnose by yourself and reach for a sports drink—it may not be an appropriate treatment for your child.
Unfortunately, intestinal sickness is often accompanied by a tummy ache, and your little munchkin may not want to eat for fear of throwing up again or worse! So let him nibble on dry crackers, toast or unsweetened dry cereals as he wishes. Chipped ice or small sips of water are fine if tolerated. Breastfed babies will usually continue to nurse, although shorter feedings may reduce your milk output slightly for 24 hours. Diluted apple and white grape juices may also be offered. Offer fluids frequently but don’t be alarmed if your child refuses food for 24 hours.
Once he’s able to tolerate small bites of food, your child will most likely start asking for more to eat. Following intestinal illness, many small meals are better than a few large ones. Plan on six to eight “snacker” meals for a day or two before sitting him back at the family table. If your child becomes too listless to eat or drink, call your pediatrician immediately or head for an emergency room.
Ear, nose and throat infections may not cause you as much alarm but will usually interrupt normal eating routines. Breathing is the most important bodily function, so a child with a stuffy nose won’t want to eat if he can only breathe through his mouth. Ask your pediatrician about saline nose drops to help clear the mucous from the nose. Avoid foods that increase mucous, like dairy products and chocolate. Cooled, clear chicken broth in a cup, juices and gelatin will taste good and provide fluids until your little one is feeling better.
Chewing and swallowing can make an ear infection or sore throat hurt more, but cool foods like frozen pops, ice cream, yogurt or pudding (if there is no congestion), gelatin and soft foods such as cooked cereals, eggs and noodles might be tolerable depending on the severity of the infection.
Diarrhea and antibiotics can both alter the flora of the intestine, so some children may have difficulty drinking fluid milk after an illness. A short duration of sensitivity to lactose (milk sugar) is not uncommon until the intestine is able to reestablish lactase enzyme. Symptoms are usually a stomachache and occasionally diarrhea. Lactose-free formula is available for infants, and there is lactose-reduced milk in the dairy section of the grocery. You can also purchase lactase drops to be added to milk, which will predigest the sugar before your child drinks the milk.
Always check with your pediatrician before giving your child any over-the-counter medications. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, find out if there are any foods that should be avoided when taking the medicine. Your pharmacist is also an excellent resource regarding food and drug interactions. Finally, many children will lose weight during an illness, but should regain it before too long. If your child’s appetite does not improve within a week after the infection is over, let the pediatrician know. You can help protect your children from colds and infections by offering them plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, which provide vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants to help fight infections. Also, make sure they are well rested and encourage them to wash their hands frequently with lots of soap and water, or use a waterless hand sanitizer often throughout the day.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.