For a cold
When your child's nose is stuffed up, she's coughing or her throat is so sore it hurts to swallow, push fluids. This will loosen phlegm and make it easier for your child to cough it up. "Offer your child water first, then ice pops and ginger ale. Diluted fruit juice is fine, too, in moderation," says Michele Peterson, M.D., a pediatrician with the HealthEast Woodbury Pediatric Clinic, in Woodbury, Minnesota.
For a sore throat, either warm or very cold liquids are soothing as well: warm tea, hot chocolate, ice pops, and cold juice. You may want to skip citrus juices, since they're acidic and can hurt some kids' throats. (If OJ doesn't bother your child, though, it's fine.)
To encourage her daughter Nora, 2, to drink when she has a cold, Joanna Carrell of Lee's Summit, Missouri, gives her a sippy cup with a soft, rubbery straw in it. "She only gets to use a straw when she's sick, so this cup is a treat," says Carrell. "I fill it with half juice and half water, and it's a great way to make sure she gets fluid when she's very congested and doesn't feel like drinking anything."
Chicken soup, of course, is the classic remedy for colds and sore throats. And it is something special. Research has shown that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties, reducing the movement of neutrophils—immune cells that stimulate the release of mucus. Both homemade and canned soup—even just the broth—are effective. If your child has an appetite, try adding some crumbled-up whole-wheat crackers or cooked macaroni.
For an upset stomach
Fluids are important if your child has diarrhea, and essential if she's throwing up. Every year several hundred thousand children with stomach flu are admitted to hospital emergency departments for dehydration. Often when a child is vomiting, parents avoid giving anything to drink at all, to let her stomach "settle." That's a mistake, says Beth Gleghorn, M.D., division director for pediatric gastroenterology at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland. Withhold solid food—and plain water, which isn't well tolerated in the digestive tract during a stomach flu. But be vigilant about offering the right fluids. Here's how:
For a baby
- If you're breastfeeding, nurse for shorter periods more frequently. If she throws up right after a feeding, wait 20 minutes and then offer the breast again. "It's likely that you've gotten something into her, even if it seems like she's thrown up everything," Dr. Gleghorn says. If your baby keeps throwing up, and you think she may be getting dehydrated, stop breastfeeding for a couple of hours and offer a tablespoon (half an ounce) of an oral rehydration solution like Pedialyte every 10 to 15 minutes, until the vomiting stops. Then resume nursing. (Pedialyte, or a generic version of it, has the right balance of potassium and sodium to replenish what kids lose when they vomit or have diarrhea.)
- If you're bottle-feeding, stop the formula and instead give your baby one tablespoon of an oral rehydration solution. Wait 20 minutes and then offer another tablespoon. One easy way to offer the fluid is to put it into a medicine dropper. "As your baby feels better, keep doubling the amount of liquid in the dropper," says Dr. Peterson.
For a child, age 1 and up
- Offer one or two tablespoons of an oral rehydration solution every 20 to 30 minutes, advises Andrea McCoy, M.D., a pediatrics associate professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.
- If she throws up, wait 30 minutes and try again.
- If she keeps it down, slowly increase the amount until she's taking two tablespoons (about an ounce) every 10 minutes.
- Don't worry if you give your child more than these amounts—this isn't medicine. The only reason to give so little at first is to help your child keep it down.
- By age 3 or 4, many kids will balk at the taste. Try disguising it by stirring a drink mix like sugar-free Kool-Aid or Crystal Light into the Pedialyte, suggests Dr. McCoy. "It doesn't increase the sugar load and it can mask the salty taste."
- If your child has only diarrhea with no vomiting, an oral rehydration solution is fine, but you can also give her other liquids such as water or milk. Even flat soda (like ginger ale) is okay, says Dr. McCoy. But skip fruit juice for now.
- If your child falls asleep—and doesn't show signs of dehydration—don't wake her up just to drink more. To get better, she needs rest, too.
For a child who's starting to feel better
A couple of hours after she's stopped vomiting, you can offer fruit juice. Dr. McCoy suggests white grape juice—but not for medical reasons: If it comes back up, it won't stain the furniture.
At this point you can also offer small portions of food. The goal is to get your child back to her regular diet of foods she likes, with some exceptions. For a day or two, avoid sugary drinks, orange juice or other acidic beverages and foods that are high-sugar, spicy or greasy.
Instead, give a recuperating child simple foods such as crackers, dry cereal, pancakes (no butter, and easy on the syrup) or peanut butter sandwiches. Try canned chicken noodle soup and salty crackers; she needs to replace some sodium, too. Lydia Voles of Ossining, New York, cuts toast with a dinosaur cookie cutter, which delights her sons, Jack and Cal Lepkowski, 8 and 5.
Joann Muñoz of North Bergen, New Jersey, prepares an Ecuadorean drink for her 2-year-old, Zein. "I boil a cup of white rice with a pinch of salt in four cups of water until it's almost crumbling apart," she says. "Then I strain it and give my son the starchy water. It settles the stomach and is very binding."
Milk was once considered off limits right after a stomach flu, but that's no longer the case, says Dr. McCoy. "Once the vomiting is settled, and children feel better, they can go back to drinking milk," she says. Just start it slowly, she says. In most cases it's fine and won't make a case of diarrhea worse.
For a fever
If your child has a fever but no vomiting or diarrhea, he'll still need fluids. Offer frequent sips of diluted fruit juicee, Gatorade or milk, says Dr. Peterson. Applesauce, soup and fruit (fresh or canned) also contain plenty of liquid.
Even if your feverish child doesn't have much of an appetite, some options might be appealing. Try: applesauce topped with a few raisins and a little cinnamon sugar; chilled, canned peaches served, sundae style, over vanilla frozen yogurt; cream of wheat flavored with a dash of vanilla extract and a little maple syrup; and club soda topped off with cold cran-raspberry juice.
Remember that whether your child has a fever, a stomach bug or a cold, it'll probably be a day or two before he really starts to eat like himself again.