Guest post by Dr. Jennifer Johnson
When parents are renourishing a child with an eating disorder and that child gets sick, parents often don’t know what to do. Some families may back off on feeding every time a child gets any illness, which can be a risky practice. Especially during Phase 1 of Family-Based Treatment (FBT), ensuring eating is a priority. To help parents, I’ve asked Jennifer Johnson, MD, a medical doctor who specializes in treating patients with eating disorders, to share some advice.
First, let me say that in general, minor illnesses should not cause a kid with an eating disorder to lose weight. Parents who are refeeding their children know that even missing a meal or a snack makes a difference in their progress. Don’t let illness throw you off course. As you know, failure to gain as expected may occur if nutrition is even a bit compromised. It is absolutely not a given that illness or surgical procedure must cause weight loss. When I hear that someone has lost 3 pounds “because they had a cold” the previous week, I ask a lot of questions – that should not have happened.
Second, plan ahead. After you’ve read through my answers and looked at other parents’ recommendations, be proactive. Make a plan with your child and treatment team about what you will do if they get sick (which they inevitably WILL at some point during recovery). They should know that they WILL still be eating. But talk about what foods they tend to like when they are ill, and think about how to plug maximum nutrition into them. Buy any non-perishable supplies and stock up on over-the-counter medications for colds, coughs, and fevers. (And please have a thermometer on hand! A $10 digital one is plenty good to give us doctors valuable information.)
What should parents do in terms of feeding when a child with an eating disorder has a head cold or sore throat and loses their appetite? Is it necessary to avoid dairy?
If your child is listless and feeling unwell, they will often not be very hungry for a couple of days. A sick child needs care and comfort. Caring for a sick child who has an eating disorder includes keeping up the nutritional intake. You don’t want the eating disorder to think that illness is a good way to sneak through the back door. And, there are other times when your child is not hungry, just from refeeding itself, and they have to eat anyway. So, push ahead, but gently. Present nutrition-dense food and beverages that will be particularly appealing to your child. Does a milkshake sound appetizing? You can add a packet of Benecalorie (a nutritional supplement). (There’s nothing wrong with dairy, by the way.) Chicken noodle soup? Maybe add some extra pasta. There are lots of helpful posts from parents on the Around the Dinner Table Parent Forum.
What about if they have a fever?
Having a significant fever (101 or above) increases fluid needs as well as metabolic rate (more calories are burned). Your child will feel better if you control the fever with regular doses of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Giving the medication at regular intervals, say every 6 hours for acetaminophen, may prevent the fever from getting as high as it otherwise might. This also helps with the headaches that usually accompany fever. Keeping your child hydrated, particularly with something like Gatorade, will also help them feel better – and thus more likely to have some appetite. Some kids maintain their appetite when they have a fever and of course, it’s fine to continue refeeding. Otherwise, know that keeping up nutrition during an illness helps your child feel better sooner, and push on. Again, it’s helpful to adjust what you give them based on their preferences.
What about when kids in recovery have stomach flu?
What do you do if they’re vomiting?
Generally, vomiting is worst at the onset of an episode of stomach flu and becomes less frequent over the next 24 hours. A parent’s main goal when a kid is vomiting is to keep them hydrated. I recommend not giving anything by mouth for 2 hours after they’ve thrown up. Then you can give them ice chips or a couple of teaspoons of water. This liquid will get absorbed from the mouth. Do this every 5 minutes or so for half an hour. If they haven’t vomited again, you can have them try slightly larger amounts of liquids at less frequent intervals. They should be able to keep down about 2/3 of a cup of liquid, and be hungry, before you try a very small amount of food. Slowly increase the amount you give them. Kids may become ravenous and eat a huge meal, but then throw up everything they’ve just eaten. A kid who throws up a day or two into recuperation may have just overdone it. In that case, you’ll need to let up a bit before pushing back into refeeding.
What about diarrhea?
For kids with diarrhea, we don’t generally recommend giving any medications that are designed to decrease the number of stools (bowel movements). No major food restrictions are needed. There is nothing magical or beneficial about the so-called BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast), which is of low nutritional density. Studies have shown that having diarrhea for a few days does not make someone lactose intolerant. We know that eating when you have a “stomach bug” with diarrhea will generally increase the number of diarrheal stools. But we also know that at the end of the illness, people who have continued to eat will end up better-nourished (= digested more calories). And that, of course, is the ultimate goal.
One thought: you may want to speak with your child’s doctor about a proactive prescription for a small number of anti-emetic tablets (that dissolve in the mouth) to have on hand in case your child gets stomach flu. I don’t normally recommend this but refeeding is an exception. We want to minimize the duration of nausea and vomiting to make it easier for your child to eat. Also, many of my patients who have eating disorders are afraid of truly fearful of vomiting (a condition called emetophobia), which only makes stomach flu worse for everyone. If your doctor is willing to do this, they undoubtedly want you to call before you give the medication.
What if your child has no appetite (due to illness)
Biology is on our side. When a kid (or another human being) eats less due to a minor illness, appetite typically returns with a vengeance and we make up for what we’ve missed. For a kid in the early refeeding phase, of course, it is normal to not feel hungry. So you may not know whether your child is not hungry because they’re not feeling well or because they’re refeeding. In either case, your eating-disordered child needs you to continue to push forward. Refeeding is the mainstay of treatment and you’re the team leader. Go for it!
Please note that none of the above should be construed as medical advice. If you have concerns about your child’s health, contact their doctor. Some examples of when you should call the doctor are: Bloody diarrhea, high fever (102 or above), vomiting that continues more than 24 hours, weakness, severe dizziness or fainting, or very little urine.
About Jennifer Johnson, M.D., MS, FAAP
Dr. Johnson is a medical doctor. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist. She practices in Newport Beach (Orange County), California.
Dr. Johnson is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in Adolescent Medicine as well as in Pediatrics. Dr. Johnson also has an advanced degree in public health. She has been a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, where she served as director of the adolescent medicine program. Dr. Johnson has taught medical students, residents, faculty, and community physicians, for whom she continues to present educational programs. She has presented at national meetings of many organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Practice. Dr. Johnson has written many research articles and book chapters related to adolescent and young adult medicine.
Dr. Johnson is an advocate for adolescents and young adults. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). She has led many activities in the Academy’s Section on Adolescent Health and served as its chairperson. Dr. Johnson is active in the Orange County chapter of the AAP, as well. Current projects include the Teen Safe Driving Initiative and healthcare for GLBTQ teens.
Dr. Johnson has also been active in the Society for Adolescent Medicine. As a member of the medical advisory board for Teengrowth, Dr. Johnson wrote many articles and answers to reader questions. Articles and webcasts by Dr. Johnson are posted at Healthology.com, medbroadcast.com, and the New York Daily News.