A How-To Guide for Parenting When You're Sick

You feel like death. Your child feels like dancing, jumping, making a mess, and whining for more snacks. These little-known shortcuts are your ticket to a restorative day in bed—even if you don't have a babysitter. 

Tired Sick Mom With Thermometer Holding Baby
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

Since my first son was born four and a half years ago, I’ve taken exactly one real sick day, and even then, between the bouts of barfing and sleeping, I still had to nurse a 4-month-old every few hours.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had plenty of nasty bugs since then. In fact, I’m feeling lousy right now—six days into a whopper of a cold contracted from preschool-size biological weapons, also known as my sons. But like so many parents, if I’m anywhere on the sick spectrum other than “almost dead,” I don’t shirk my mom duties to binge-watch Younger. Instead, I power through our normal routine and wind up, well, worse.

The lesson to be learned from this story: Don’t be like me.

It turns out, the number-one rule when you’re sick is simple: Take it easy. Let go of your standards and guilt. Tell your kids, “Mommy is really sick today,” and help them grasp that you need their cooperation to get rest. “We try to be superheroes and hide how bad we feel,” says Marcie Beigel, Ed.D., a child behavior expert in New York City. “We don’t think young children understand, but you’d be surprised.”

I spoke to parents who’ve mastered the art of doing the bare minimum while keeping their kids safe, fed, and calm to get their secrets to sick-day success.

Parent horizontally.

In an ideal world, you want your kids to spend at least some of the day playing quietly by themselves so you can zone out. How to accomplish this feat: When you’re healthy, amass a stash of small toys, games, art supplies, and anything else new and exciting, and hide it. That’s what mom Bailey Gaddis, of Ojai, California, did. Now a magic duffel bag full of little treasures from mom swaps and Target lives in her closet, ready for her 4-year-old. “Because the bag only comes out on rare occasions, the novelty keeps him entertained for hours,” Gaddis says. Failed to plan ahead? Raid your birthday-present stash to gift yourself a break. If your child is less than a year old, you can get away with shopping your Tupperware drawer.

Of course, your kids will need more attention eventually. And when they do, it’s time for your next trick: games that require almost zero effort on your part. Several moms I spoke to employ old standbys like playing doctor-patient or hospital. “When I had morning sickness with my second baby, I liked to play ‘night-night’ with my older one,” says Lee Helland, of Bloomfield, New Jersey. “She’d put a blanket on me, ‘read’ stories, sing songs, over and over. She loved it.”

When that activity has run its course, make a game of telling your kids what to do. Stephanie Tsai, of Los Angeles, “coaches” her boys, 2 and 5. “I have them run through obstacles, like ‘touch the door’ and ‘crawl under the chairs,’ while I time them from bed. They have to keep doing the course until they beat whatever random goal I set,” she says. Similarly, when her boys were younger, Melissa Raman Molitor, of Evanston, Illinois, created impromptu scavenger hunts for them. She’d have her sons find and bring her everyday objects from around the house—the striped beach towel, Dad’s orange socks. “After they’d exhausted their list, if they put everything back where they found it, they got a reward, like an extra story at bedtime,” she says.

Use screen time strategically.

Like many parents, I drop my usual rules about TV when I’m sick and turn into an Oprah meme: “And YOU get to watch cartoons! And YOU get to watch cartoons!” Still, it’s smart to set limits to keep the kids from going full zombie.

My favorite trick: bribing, er, I mean, rewarding my kids with TV for playing nicely together. I tell them if they can make it without fighting or whining until a timer goes off (20 to 30 minutes), they can watch a show! But if they do either, the timer resets. They always make it, but I inevitably reset at least once. In the end, they get quality playtime and learn independence, and I get added rest.

Michelle Davis-Dash, M.D., a pediatrician in Baltimore and a contributor to The Mommy MD Guides website, says using TV as a reward is an acceptable strategy as long as you follow the rules: “Set achievable goals and make them really earn it,” she says. If you think your child’s failing to earn the TV time would make you cry even harder than he would, don’t bother with a challenge. Just turn on the TV from the start.

If you can, try saving TV for later in the day. Kids are most creative and likely to engage in independent play in the morning, and TV can stifle that instinct, says Allison LaTona, a Los Angeles-based family therapist and parenting consultant. Her other tip: Break up super-stimulating animated programs with other content that is slower-paced and enjoyable to watch together, like a nature documentary or a cooking show.

And don’t forget about “active” screen time, says Michelle Wedge, a mom of two in University Park, Maryland. Her kids love the Art for Kids Hub YouTube channel, which coaches them through projects. “I find it more palatable since they’re practicing skills while they watch,” she says. Of course, certain apps and tablet games can be enriching, too, but they’re also more magnetizing and can be harder to rein in. (Then again, this might be a good thing when you’re sick!)

Whatever you choose to use, explain the sick-day plan and reiterate that tomorrow (or whenever you think you’ll feel better) normal rules will apply. Then stay on course if you can.

Outsource creatively.

This shouldn’t be news, but just in case, remember: Your friends generally want to help you. So ask them to, whether you need a nap, can’t stomach the school pickup line, or need Gatorade. Sara Chana Silverstein, a mom of seven in Brooklyn, suggests setting yourself up for future goodwill by proactively helping others. “I try to do extra car pools when I’m healthy so people owe me some car pools when I need them.”

No favors to call in? Barter. Catherine Ryan Gregory, of Portland, Oregon, once promised a pal to wear a hospital mask—and pay her in homemade cookies later—if she came over and watched the baby while Ryan Gregory slept off the stomach flu. The friend gladly accepted.

You can also outsource homework help to grandparents via FaceTime and let audiobooks piped through the iPad handle bedtime stories. Wedge says her older kids are big fans of Jean Fritz’s historical biographies and Greathall Productions’ stories narrated by Jim Weiss. My own preschoolers love Storybook Storytellers.

Conserve your energy.

Do less and take shortcuts whenever and wherever you can. Dress babies in superabsorbent nighttime diapers during the day to cut down on wet-diaper changes. (Slather zinc oxide cream onto your baby first to protect her skin, suggests Dr. Davis-Dash.) As for clothes, dealing with the bajillion snaps on footed jammies can be exhausting even when you’re healthy, so opt for one-pieces and stretchy pants. And if the weather’s warm, don’t bother with clothes at all, suggests Ryan Gregory. “When I’m sick, my kids are naked 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent: all-day pajama party.”

Another genius hack: Bring everything you need for the day into one room, suggests Olivia Howell, a mom in East Northport, New York. “I gate off the play area and living room and bring in diapers, wipes, a snack basket, formula, and water bottles, and then we live in that room,” she says. You can even do meals picnic-style and try a sleeping-bag nap on the floor. If you’re in the middle of potty training, tote the potty in too.

Finally, give stuff up—like bathing your baby, cleaning, and fighting over food. “Half of my practice is telling parents that whatever they did or are doing, their kids are going to be okay,” says Dr. Davis-Dash. “They’ll get a proper bath eventually. If they don’t brush their teeth one day, they’ll be fine.”

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