When a stomach bug hits your household, it might feel like a nightmare that will never end. And even though you know it will pass, you’ll likely do everything in your parental powers to help your kiddo feel better pronto.
So what should you be giving them to eat and drink while they ride out the worst of their symptoms? We chatted with a pediatrician and a pediatric dietitian to get the scoop on those sick-day comfort foods to find out whether your go-to picks are helping or hurting their little bellies as they heal.
What is a stomach bug, anyway?
First, a quick refresher on the “bug” you’re battling. As Dr. Heidi Sallee, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine and Medical Director of Danis Pediatric Center at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, previously told Scary Mommy, the medical term for a stomach bug is viral gastroenteritis, aka an inflammation of the stomach and intestines that causes symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. It’s both incredibly common and incredibly contagious — though that likely offers little comfort when you’re in the thick of it. You might also hear it called the stomach flu, which is sort of a misnomer since these viruses are not related to the respiratory system like your classic influenza virus.
Viral gastroenteritis is different from food poisoning, an illness typically caused by food-borne bacteria or parasites that develop from something you ingest, typically due to being undercooked or via improper hygiene or handling practices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that researchers have identified more than 250 different types of food-borne diseases, which means there’s also a good chance you and your littles will be impacted by food poisoning at some time or another.
How to Care for Their Tummies During This Time
When your kid’s been throwing up and/or having diarrhea, it’s easy to let them eat or drink anything they want — after all, anything they can keep down has got to be better than nothing, right?
First things first, focus on hydration, says Dr. Rosalynd Brackens, a pediatrician with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “When children are sick with a stomach bug, it’s important to keep them hydrated,” emphasizes Brackens. “Hydration is more important than food.”
According to Marina Chaparro, pediatric dietitian and Gerber consultant, “Dehydration and diarrhea are the most frequent causes of hospitalizations for children under five,” so keeping kids hydrated — especially the younger ones — is mission critical during a bout of a tummy bug.
“For hydration, we recommend Pedialyte, Pedialyte Freezer Pops, and other oral rehydration solutions,” says Brackens. Chaparro notes that these drinks are specially formulated with the right amount of sugar, sodium, and electrolytes to replenish what has been lost during illness. “These are better than sugary drinks or juices as well as sugary commercial sports drinks, because the sugar can make diarrhea worse,” says Brackens. “Carbonated beverages and teas are OK to drink, but I would rely more heavily on oral hydration solutions or pure water.”
Both pros agree that the sugar content in most soft drinks and sodas (including the classic sick-day choice of ginger ale) could end up making diarrhea worse.
When and What to Reintroduce, Food-wise
“If the child is able to keep a drink down without persistent vomiting, then — if cleared by your medical provider — the best food to eat would be things that are easy and light on the stomach, such as broths, soups, noodles, and breads,” says Brackens. “Be sure they aren’t too seasoned (either too salty or spicy), greasy, fatty, or sugary.” She says that greasy and sugary foods should be avoided “because they can irritate the belly and make the symptoms worse,” while “heavy dairy foods can also make diarrhea worse.”
In other words, you may want to steer clear of comfort food favorites like ramen (high in sodium and seasoning) and tomato soup with grilled cheese (heavy on dairy and fat).
If your child does begin to have an appetite, “We want foods that are easy to digest and ideally aim for small frequent meals every 3-4 hours,” says Chaparro. As for some options that are mild, relatively bland, and nutrient-dense, she has several recommendations:
· Chia seeds/flax seeds: “Seeds are some of my favorite foods to include in everyday meals because of their high nutrition,” says Chaparro. “Chia seeds are high in omega-3, calcium, and soluble fiber. The soluble fiber may help by absorbing the extra fluids and bulking up the stool.”
· Bananas: “They’re high in potassium, which is an electrolyte often lost in diarrhea,” she notes. “Bananas are also high in resistant starch and pectin, a soluble fiber that may help bulk stools. You can add it to a toast with peanut butter, a plain cereal, or a smoothie — one of my kids’ favorites.”
· Oatmeal/whole-grain cereal: Chaparro recommends “a whole grain cereal that is nutrient-dense or oatmeal is also high in soluble fiber, which again is helpful for healthy stools. I like Gerber’s Powerblend Probiotic Oatmeal Chickpea Banana & Chia Cereal because it contains key ingredients that nourish kids plus probiotics.”
· Yogurt with live active cultures: “Yogurt contains probiotics, live microorganisms, or beneficial bacteria which can help support a healthy gut when eaten regularly,” says Chaparro. “Another great alternative to help support kids' immune systems is a probiotic like Gerber Good Start Toddler Probiotic, which contains L. Reuteri, a probiotic that when used daily can support digestive health.”
When to Seek Medical Care
Not sure whether or not it’s time to call the doctor? Per Brackens: “Stomach bugs do take time to resolve, but the next day should, in theory, be better as far as symptom progression. If diarrhea persists for over a week or if symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea worsen, then I would recommend seeing your medical provider for further evaluation. If at any point blood is noticed in the diarrhea, then you should also seek advice from your medical provider.”
Adds Chaparro, “You should always consult with your pediatrician if your child’s symptoms don’t seem to be improving. This is especially true if your child is not drinking, if diarrhea or vomiting persists, which can quickly lead to dehydration, and/or a fever develops or worsens. Proper nutrition can help ensure kids stay hydrated and fueled while the virus runs its course. But every child is different, and there can be significant variations in the type of infection/virus.”
Fear not; it will pass, and the support of your doctor — along with as much hydration and a few key foods, if your babe’s tummy can handle it — can help get them on the mend soon.