Feeding a sick baby or toddler, plant-based tipsFeb 08, 2024
When your little one is sick it can be a worrying time and tiring for both baby and parents. If your infant goes off their food it can also feel even more upsetting. As a nutritionist and mum specialising in plant-based diets for infants and children, I know first-hand the stress and concern that can come with a sick baby or toddler. When your child is feeling under the weather, your primary concern is their comfort and health. Whether it's a common cold, a stomach bug, or fever, making sure they get the right nutrition and stay hydrated can be challenging.
In this blog I’ll share insights and tips on what to feed your sick baby or toddler, focusing on plant-based options, to ensure they get the necessary nutrients and hydration during these difficult periods.
Understanding Your Baby’s Nutritional Needs When Unwell
When your baby is unwell, they may lose their appetite. This is a natural response to an illness, but as parents, it can be a worry wondering how you’ll maintain their nutrition and hydration too. Focus on offering small, nutrient-rich meals that are gentle on their tummies and appealing to them. However, also understand that they may not feel like eating anything or can only face eating single foods rather than complex meals. Whilst this can be a usual side effect of illness, it is important to know what is normal behaviour for your baby, trust your instincts and always seek guidance from your health care professional if you are concerned. The NHS has further information you can reference here.
The Importance of Hydration
Hydration is the first and most important concern, especially with symptoms like fever, diarrhoea, or vomiting. Dehydration can happen rapidly in young children. Here's how to ensure your little one stays hydrated:
- Under 6 months: For breastfeeding and formula feeding infants under six months, continue responsive feeding. Breastfeeding babies do not need to be offered water and you may find your baby increases the number of feeds they have, this is absolutely fine. Breast milk is a living food and can adapt to your baby’s needs, responding to periods of illness. For a baby 6 months and older you may also find they return to wanting more regular milk feeds. If you are breastfeeding, then continue to offer the breast more regularly (and stock up on energy dense food and extra fluids for yourself too)!
- Above 6 months: From 6 months your baby can have small sips of water regularly throughout the day. In the UK this can be unboiled tap water straight from the tap (always check the local guidance if you are outside the UK). Offering a variety of fun cups or straws can make drinking more appealing. Your baby doesn’t need baby marketed juices, coconut water, herbal teas, fizzy drinks or tea and coffee – stick to breast, formula and water only
- Hydrating Foods: Offer fruits like watermelon, cucumber and tomatoes which are high in water content. Yoghurt, smoothies and home-made ice lollies are also hydrating
- Soups, stews & broths: These can include whatever veggies you have in, keep flavours plain and offer with lots of bread to dip and soak up the moisture ready for your little one to eat. For some ideas on what to make check out some of my easy recipes here
Soothing Foods for Sore Throats and Coughs
Sore throats and coughs call for soft, soothing foods. Here are some comforting options:
- Warm broths & soups: Vegetable broths are warm, soothing, and hydrating. Soups are also perfect for including a variety of nutrients in an easy to eat way. Making your own can be quick and cheap, especially if you have frozen veggies on hand to use. Check out a couple of my easy winter soup recipes here
- Soft Fruits: Offer pureed fruits like banana or mashed poached fruit like apples or pears, which are gentle on sore throats
- Nutritional Smoothies: Blend fruits with plant-based yogurts or milks for a nutritious, throat-soothing treat (avoid using fruit juices or coconut water as it can cause an upset tummy). You can super charge these by adding nut butters, hemp hearts or other seeds to increase the fat and protein. Blend well so they are completely smooth. Freeze leftovers into ice lollies (some quick tips here)
- Nice creams: your little one may enjoy the coolness of a nice cream, blend frozen banana or mangoes with a little plant based milk to help loosen it. If you have avocado, you could add this for extra healthy fats
Managing Upset Stomachs
For upset stomachs, bland, easy-to-digest foods are best:
- Simple Carbohydrates: Options like plain pasta, white rice, oat crackers or bread/toast are gentle on the stomach.
- Bananas: Easy to digest and can help replace lost electrolytes.
- Steamed Vegetables: Soft-cooked carrots or squash are gentle on the digestive system.
Small, nutrient-rich snacks can be more appealing than full meals:
- Nut Butters: Spread thinly on crackers or bread, they offer healthy fats and protein
- Hummus: A great dip for soft veggies or pita bread, rich in protein and nutrients
- Fortified Cereals: Opt for iron-fortified, whole-grain cereals with almond or soy milk
- Smoothies: load with nuts and seeds to help fill your little one (remember not to use fruit juice or coconut water in smoothies for your little one – fortified plant-milks or breast milk & freshly made infant formula can be used, formula milk cannot however be frozen or reused so discard leftovers to keep your baby safe).
Fever and Loss of Appetite
Fevers can increase the body's energy needs while decreasing appetite:
- Energy-Dense Foods: Offer small amounts of nut butters, avocados, or smoothies
- Cool Foods: Chilled fruit purees, plant yoghurt or ice lollies can be soothing and enticing
- Comfort Foods: Sometimes, familiar foods can encourage eating, even in small amounts
Encouraging Eating and Drinking
Your routine is likely to have gone out of the window during times of illness, once your baby is beginning to feel a bit better after 2-3 days you can try and reintroduce your routine around mealtimes by:
- Fun and Colourful Presentation: Make food visually appealing to spark interest
- Eating Together: Family meals and role modelling may help your little one feel like a bit of what you are having
- Patience and Persistence: Keep offering a variety of foods, even if they eat very little. Don’t worry about introducing new foods at this time. It’s fine to stick to favourites for now and return to a wider range of foods when they feel better
- Relaxed mealtimes: Allow your child to snack if and when they feel up to it, not just at regular mealtimes
Monitoring Your Child's Health
It's important to keep an eye on your child's overall health and always see your GP if you are concerned or the illness persists for more than a couple of days.
- Look for Signs of Dehydration: Dry mouth, lack of tears, and decreased urine output are signs to watch out for.
- Watch for Prolonged Symptoms: If your child's symptoms worsen or don't improve, consult a healthcare professional.
- Trust Your Instincts: You know your child best. If something feels off, seek medical advice.
Final Thoughts and Tips
Remember, it's normal for sick children to eat less. Focus on hydration through responsive breast or infant formula feeds and offer nutrient-rich foods when they are willing to eat. Be patient and keep offering a variety of options. And most importantly, offer plenty of cuddles and reassurance - your love and care are also the best medicine.