We had the stomach flu in our house this past Sunday, the night of the SAG awards/my husband and my first night out in six-and-a-half years. I would like to share with you how we handle throwing up in our house.
First, though: a bit of background. I remember a variety of instances throwing up as a kid. While none of them were terribly memorable nor traumatic, I became a teenager and adult who was terrified of throwing up. I hated everything about the possibility and still do. I was especially worried how I would handle my own children throwing up.
The first time I experienced my child throwing up was when my first son was 12-months-old. My husband was in China and I could not believe I had to handle a kid with the stomach flu alone, and almost killed him via Skype. Surprisingly, a calm came over me and I intuitively knew how to handle things. Not perfectly, but with grace and consciousness. Since those days, I have implemented a process by which I facilitate throwing up in the least scary traumatic way possible for my boys. In my opinion, it’s working great and I have seen a scared trembling child completely unfamiliar with throwing up (namely my 3 1/2-year-old on an airplane on Sunday) instantly calmed by my techniques.
Here are my pointers which work best for ages 3 and up. Before the age of 3, it’s kind of a roll of the dice if these will all help, but I am hopeful that with a few adjustments, they might!
1) No throwing up in the toilet. G-d love my parents (and yours as well) but throwing up into the toilet is really not fun at all, and I would argue that it makes throwing up even more daunting and difficult. The smell, the juxtaposition of what it’s supposed to be for and where your face is–yuch yuch yuch.
Solution: When our boys are in the midst of a flu, we keep a stack of towels and washable blankets by their bed or wherever they are resting. When the child starts to throw up, throw a towel down, folding over a corner over each little deposit of throw-up. (Seeing throw up is enough to make any child throw up again out of sheer disgust, so it’s a smart idea to cover it up ASAP.) On the airplane, I used any sweatshirt or blanket I had handy and it worked really well (“well” being a relative term since we were on an airplane flying through the sky and my kid was throwing up every food his stomach has ever held all over me and the faux leather seats on a Virgin jetliner).
2) Get mouthy. The taste and feel of throwing up to a child’s mouth is awful and miserable.
Solution: Have a washcloth handy to wipe their mouths in between throwing up, and a solution of watered down mouthwash so they can rinse their mouth out. Also have a separate washcloth around to wet down their forehead, especially if they have a fever.
3) Don’t flip out, Part 1. Watching someone throw up is hard. It elicits a very strong primal reaction to get the heck out of the vicinity. It smells unpleasant, it looks unpleasant, and it is the ultimate demonstration of a loss of control and vulnerability which can sometimes make certain types of people want to run fast (for myriad psychological reasons that moms who have PhDs love to think about but will spare you the details of here).
Solution: Chill out. Know that you were chosen to be this child’s parent and you have all of the skills needed to handle this. It’s hard to see our children sick and upset, but they need us to be there. I always place a hand gently on our boys’ backs while they are throwing up and I force myself to repeat a few simple mantras to them in a calm, quiet, reassuring voice. “I’ve got you,” “Mama’s here,” “You’re almost done” (even if they may not be; in the scope of the Universe, they’re almost done!), and “Get it all out” are the ones I like most. I repeat: these should be said in a calm, quiet, reassuring voice. Do NOT scream: “GET IT ALL OUT!!!!” like you are a football coach shouting from the sidelines. Gentle inside voice please! Also, make children aware that a cramping feeling normally occurs with some stomach flus, but that tightening their stomach can make it worse. Encourage deep breaths during pauses between throwing up and laying down when done to let the stomach muscles rest. It also works to tell your child to imagine their stomach loose and relaxed and to put their mental energy on helping that happen.
4) Don’t flip out, Part 2. Don’t assume your child is dehydrated. Throwing up is a normal way the body gets rid of food that is in the way of a virus getting out of the body. Do NOT immediately start giving them Pedialyte or Gatorade. I’m not a medical doctor, but any doctor will tell you that it’s okay to wait and see how your child is before panicking that they are dehydrated.
Solution: Know the symptoms of dehydration. Know that breastfeeding is almost always the best thing, even if they throw it up again. Know the difference between lethargic (normal with the flu) and listless. If you are concerned, call your medical practitioner to see their standards for administering things like Pedialyte of Gatorade (which has corn syrup in it, FYI). Also, it’s tempting to put on the TV when your kid is sick, but that can sometimes be overstimulating to a compromised body and can make it hard to tell how a child is really doing. Pay close attention to them so that you have an accurate portrait to paint if you choose to speak to a practitioner.
5) Debrief. After a throw up session, I encourage you not to tell a child they are “okay” since they most certainly will not feel okay. My general parenting philosophy takes into strong account a child’s experience and report of their inner world, and children get really confused when what you tell them they feel does not match what they actually feel.
Solution: Explain briefly after each throw up session in simple terms that there is a virus/bug/boo-boo in their tummy that needs to get out, and that it can’t have food in the body to do that. Let them talk about how they feel. Ask if their tummy hurts, and make sure to highlight that our tummy usually feels better after throwing up (it helps to frame the throwing up by pointing this out, I have found). If you have been struggling with your child over them being thirsty or hungry while sick, gently point out that this is why we take it slow with eating and drinking. Do NOT say, “See? I told you so!!! THIS is why I have been telling you not to drink so much water and eat those rice cakes all day!! Do you think I got to this age with no knowledge in my brain at all!!!??” even though the desire may be very strong to do so (this has been true in my personal experience!).
There are lessons learned in all aspects of parenting: the joy and ecstasy of birth and welcoming a new life taught me to be grateful and inspired in me an awe of our Creator. The sadness and disappointment of my child not getting included in some activity he wanted to be a part of taught me to separate my loss from his and to be his parent, not a hurt child myself. And the panic and dread of a child throwing up taught me to confront my fears and make the inevitable process of stomach flu a source of connection with my children and compassion for them.
Because I am the mama, for better or for worse, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Refuah Shleymah! Get well soon!