6 Common Tummy Trouble Mistakes Parents Should Avoid

Of course you want to help your child feel better fast, but the wrong tummy treatment could set them back for days. Experts say parents should avoid these big mistakes.

I'm a mom of three, so when an awful stomach bug tore through my family, I thought I knew exactly what to do. But when my oldest son couldn't stop vomiting, I was mortified when our pediatrician asked, "You gave him how much water?" It turns out I'd made a classic error: Fearing that Jacob, 8, would get dehydrated, I'd let him gulp down a full cup each time he vomited, which caused him to get sick even more.

Grandmother helps her grandson eat soup.

ACALU Studio / Stocksy

Such mistakes are common when treating a gastrointestinal illness, which is usually caused by a virus and, less often, by a bacterial infection. "It's scary when your child is throwing up," says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician and author of Baby and Toddler Basics. "And you'll do anything to make it stop."

You do need to keep a close eye on your child because a stomach bug can be serious. For example, research shows the norovirus causes about 24,000 children under 18 to enter the hospital each year. Chances are, however, your child's troubled tummy will be fine within a few days to a week. All you need to do is make them feel as comfortable as possible, let the illness run its course, and steer clear of the following flubs.

Don't Give Kids a Glass of Water After Vomiting

Immediately after your child throws up, they will likely want some water. But it's not a good idea to let them chug a glass right after. Since their stomach is likely inflamed from vomiting, wait 15 to 30 minutes before giving them anything to drink. "Otherwise, it may come right back up," says Vipul Singla, M.D., a pediatrician in Las Vegas. Start with a single teaspoon of water or an electrolyte drink (such as Pedialyte, which contains salt to help rehydrate the gut) every 15 minutes.

If your child stops throwing up and holds down the liquid for an hour, you can increase the frequency to every 10 minutes, and so on. After two to three hours, you can try ice pops, Jell-O, or applesauce, since the sweet taste may appeal to them.

But don't assume kids are on the mend just because they stop vomiting. With most stomach bugs, diarrhea can linger for up to a week, along with a low-grade fever, headaches, chills, and body aches. Call your pediatrician if symptoms don't start to subside within a day or two.

Avoid Over-the-Counter Medicine for Diarrhea

You may want to give over-the-counter (OTC) medicine to soothe your kid's upset stomach, but never give any tummy medicine unless your doctor approves it. "Sometimes parents use whatever they have in their medicine cabinet," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician at Children’s Medical Group, which has three locations in Georgia. "But these drugs can cause side effects in children and make the illness worse." In particular, antidiarrheal meds such as original Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate contain an aspirin-like substance called salicylate that can cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease, in kids under 18. While loperamide (the main ingredient in Imodium, Kaopectate I-D, and others) is FDA-approved for kids 6 and older, Dr. Shu doesn't advise using this medicine because it slows down digestion and keeps the bug in your child's gut longer.

Check with your doctor before giving them Pepto-Bismol Children Chewable Tablets, which don't contain salicylate. Often, the best strategy is simply to keep your child hydrated and wait it out.

Don't Be Too Quick to Reduce a Fever

Weigh the pros and cons. An elevated temperature is a sign that your child's immune system is working to fight the infection. If temperature exceeds 101F and your kid is feeling crummy, though, lowering their temperature might make them more receptive to drinking liquids. Stick with acetaminophen, since ibuprofen can further irritate the stomach.

If your child is vomiting, Dr. Altmann suggests starting with half the recommended dose of acetaminophen for your child's age; give them the other half about an hour later (provided they keep it down). If your child is old enough, you can also try acetaminophen tablets that easily dissolve in their mouth. If they can't keep the medicine down, another possible option (although it might not be a favorite for your kid) is using an acetaminophen suppository.

Pay Attention to Their Juice and Milk Intake

Avoid sugary liquids like fruit juice, which can aggravate your child's stomach symptoms. If they ask to drink something other than water, try an electrolyte drink such as Gatorade.

Milk may be OK, but start with small amounts and see if their diarrhea gets worse after they drink it. A stomach virus can cause temporary lactose intolerance, which leads to abdominal pain, bloating, and cramping, according to Dr. Singla. If that happens with your child, switch to lactose-free milk until their stool returns to normal. You can also try feeding them probiotics or yogurt with live and active cultures, which will help restore the good bacteria in the intestines. It's also fine to nurse, since breast milk contains antibodies and nutrients that help the tummy heal.

Don't Follow the BRAT Diet After Your Kid Is Better

Your kid doesn't have to follow the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet once they are back to eating. Doctors say that kids should resume their regular eating regimen as soon as they seem to be feeling better. "More than one day on the BRAT diet is too long," Dr. Shu says. These foods do help restore normal digestion but lack the protein and other nutrients that they need to recover. Still, avoid high-fat foods (such as chicken nuggets, fries, and pizza) for several days and make sure your kid continues to drink lots of liquids until their symptoms are completely gone.

Make Sure to Remain Vigilant About Sanitizing

Stay vigilant about good hygiene even after your child's condition improves. The virus can remain in your child's intestine (and come out in their stool) for several weeks after symptoms are gone. Make sure to have them wash their hands for at least 20 seconds after every trip to the bathroom. To make sure of that, have them sing "Happy Birthday to You" twice when they wash their hands.

If your kid is still in diapers, scrub your hands after each change. Don't share towels, drinks, or food with your child. And since germs can live on places like doorknobs and toys for several hours or even days, clean or disinfect them regularly.

When to Call the Doctor

Your child's stomach will probably get better on its own, but speak to your pediatrician right away if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Your newborn is vomiting.
  • Your child can't keep down even tiny amounts of liquid.
  • They have signs of dehydration. That means they aren't peeing or their urine is very dark; their eyes seem sunken and face is pale; they have dry lips or mouth; and they have no tears when they cry. The soft spot on the top of a baby's head (the fontanel) may also appear sunken.
  • You see dark brown particles in their vomit (which could be blood) or notice a reddish, jelly-like substance in their stool (which could be a sign of a serious intestinal blockage).
  • Your child has diarrhea more than once every hour.
  • Your newborn has a temperature of 100.4F or above or your child (6 months or older) has a fever that exceeds 103F.
Updated by Anna Halkidis
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