What to feed toddlers when they are ill

Sick child

As a mum of 3, I know how often little ones catch things. Even with the best nutrition, they will catch some illnesses as their immune systems develop. It’s part of growing up unfortunately.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things we can do to reduce the likelihood of our children getting sick but that’s the topic for another article. This one looks at what to feed them when they are unwell.

What’s the most important thing to feed a child when they are ill?

Fluid.

Well, water ideally. If they are losing fluid through a runny nose, lots of tears, sickness or a runny tummy they will need the electrolytes too so soups are a great option as they slip down easily. Try to avoid anything too acidic, like tomato soup if they have a funny tummy though.

If they aren’t happy drinking water, after you have tried giving them alternative cups to make it fun, you could try hydrating fruits and vegetables (like cucumber, courgette, and melon), or very dilute fruit juice (but only as a last resort). Sometimes slightly warmed water slips down more easily if they have a sore throat so that’s worth a try too. Check the temperature on the back of your hand before offering it to them.

How do I know if they are having enough fluid?

Like you would do when they are well, make sure they have plenty of wet nappies and that they are not strong smelling or a different colour. If they are potty trained, look for pale wee. If they display signs of dehydration and aren’t keeping fluids down, seek help as soon as possible. The signs can be found here.

Which foods should I give my toddler when they are sick?

Fluid is key. For children who are likely to be ill for a short period of time, getting them to eat at least something is helpful. Remember foods can taste very different when we are ill so, as always, don’t place any pressure on your little one to eat what you offer.

Sometimes plain foods are helpful. Plain pasta, rice, bread are easy on the stomach and don’t taste too different – usually. Fruit may cut through the weird taste so keep offering fruit and veg (although see not below about diarrhoea). Try to offer as balanced a diet as possible and accept that they might not eat everything. If you can go for foods they like, within that balance, that helps encourage their appetite. For example if they like strawberries and are less keen on apples, offer the strawberries, or if they prefer cream cheese on toast to a chicken sandwich, go for the cream cheese.

Are there any foods to avoid?

Yes! Avoid foods which seem to make them worse. This is not a long term change – that’s not recommended without medical or nutrition advice. For example if heavier foods are making them sick, try lighter foods. If they are having diarrhoea, fruit might not be the best option.

Also avoid giving really salty things if you can. Some salt is helpful to balance electrolytes but too much can dehydrate.

If you can, try to avoid giving sugary foods. This may develop a pattern which is hard to break. The recommendation is for toddlers up to 4 to avoid added sugar anyway, although we know that’s not usually possible.

Spicy foods may also be better to avoid until their tummies are ok. If they just have a cold, spicy foods are fine if they are happy.

How often should I feed my sick child?

Follow their lead. Small meals can be helpful if they have a sore tummy so you might need to hold them back a bit if they love their food, but otherwise follow their lead. They might have a different sleeping pattern so meal times might not be on schedule. If you can, go with it. If they don’t want to eat, don’t force them. Just watch their fluid intake as mentioned previously.

The bottom line

If you are concerned about your child’s food or drink intake when they are ill, or otherwise, speak to your GP or Health Visitor. If they are ill for a short period of time, as long as they are staying hydrated, they will usually catch up with their eating when they get better. If they are ill repeatedly or for a longer period of time, they may need a bit more support. Don’t suffer in silence.

Disclaimer – this article is for information purposes only. It does not replace medical advice and is not individual advice. Please speak to a health professional for individual support.

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