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What not to do when your child has a sore tummy

Here are four common mistakes many parents make when treating a stomach bug, and the right way to deal with your child’s sore tummy.

Most parents know the drill. Your child wakes up in the middle of the night with a stomach bug and mild fever. You panic and give her ibuprofen to bring down the fever, followed by as much water as she’ll take in, but she struggles to keep anything down. She finally settles after a few more bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting, so you make a plan to see your GP the next morning.

The first thing your doctor asks is how much ibuprofen you gave your child. It turns out that along with the vomiting, ibuprofen can further irritate the stomach. In fact, ibuprofen should never be given to children with stomach bugs who are vomiting continuously, dehydrated, or suffering abdominal pain, according to well-known author Heidi Murkoff in What to Expect The First Year. Such blunders are common when treating gastrointestinal illnesses often caused by a virus and, less often, by a bacterial infection.

It’s important to keep a close eye on your little one because a stomach bug that causes diarrhoea and vomiting can sometimes mean a trip to the emergency room.

As alarming as it sounds, the good news is most stomach bugs aren’t too serious and can be sorted out within a few days, says clinic nurse and childcare expert Ann Richardson. “The single best treatment for viral stomach bugs is to keep your child hydrated, restore the good bacteria in her gut with a good quality probiotic and comfort her as much as possible,” she advises.

When a stomach bug hits, steer clear of these four common mistakes:

Mistake Number 1: Waiting to give your child fluids

“If you’re still breastfeeding, encourage it as often as possible,” says Ann. Breast milk contains substances that destroy many of the microorganisms that cause diarrhoea. Avoid forcing your child to drink large volumes of liquids all at once, as this might cause more vomiting. Start with a single teaspoon of water or an electrolyte drink (such as Rehidrat) or chipped ice every 15 minutes. Younger babies can have small amounts of fluid syringed into their mouths every 10 to 20 minutes.

Mistake Number 2: Giving your child sugar and dairy products

“Since a baby with diarrhoea may develop a temporary lactose intolerance, consider switching to a lactose-free formula if she’s not on breast milk,” advises Heidi. The lactose in dairy products can irritate the stomach lining and cause bloating and cramps, so if your little one is on solids, avoid cow’s milk and cheese for a day or two. Also, avoid sugary liquids such as colas, fruit juices, and athletic drinks, as these contain fructose which can irritate the stomach and worsen diarrhoea. Stick to water and lactose-free formula or breast milk until the stomach bug subsides.

Mistake Number 3: Buying over-the-counter medication to stop diarrhoea

Never give your child any medicine to stop the diarrhoea unless your doctor approves it, as some can have serious side effects and be harmful to young children, says Heidi. Even though medications such as Imodium and Kaopectate often help adults, Dr Vincent Iannelli, paediatrician, and Fellow of the American Academy of Paediatrics, agrees that these aren’t safe for babies or children under six.

“The only method beyond fluids and preventing dehydration that’s considered helpful for children is acidophilus, a type of good bacteria found in yoghurt.  If you want to try this, add some good-quality, plain yoghurt with acidophilus to your child’s diet, but it’s important to speak to your doctor first,” he adds.

Mistake Number 4: Waiting too long to give solid foods

Although it’s not a good idea to push solid foods too soon (especially if your child is vomiting), the faster she can resume her regular eating pattern, the better, says Heidi. For the first day or two, starchy foods, such as mashed banana, white rice, cereal, potatoes, pasta, and dry white toast, are all good choices, but it’s important to introduce small amounts of protein, such as white fish and chicken, as soon as your little one is feeling better. These foods contain vital nutrients, which will help to speed up recovery. Stay away from fatty, spicy foods for a while.

When to call the doctor

Your child’s tummy issues will probably get better within a few days, but call your doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Your newborn is vomiting and has less than five to six wet diapers a day.
  • Your child is listless, with glazed eyes or dry, wrinkly skin.
  • She has a high fever above 38˚C.
  • You notice a serious loss of appetite that lasts a few days.
  • She has dry mucous membranes (mouth and eyes).

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