In Tuesday’s post, I described how soothing it was for a child to be breastfed when struck with illness. But sometimes, mothers are told not to breastfeed when their child is sick. One such illness is gastroenteritis. Some health care workers wrongly believe that no type of milk should be given when a baby has gastroenteritis. But in fact, breastmilk is the best treatment for this illness.
Gastroenteritis is a virus that affects the child’s digestive system. Both the stomach and the bowels are usually involved, but it is possible that only one of these organs is affected. What we hear most often about ‘gastro’ is that the child is vomiting, that he has diarrhea, or that he is affected by both! Sometimes, a fever also accompanies the other symptoms. If this is the case and your baby is very young, under three months, it is recommended that you consult a health care provider.
Because children are little, they can easily become dehydrated when suffering from gastroenteritis. When your child vomits, all the liquids and solids he has taken in come back out again, so there is a risk of dehydration. If you add to that diarrhea, the risk is higher; if he also has a fever, the danger of dehydration is eminent. So in a case of gastroenteritis, the treatment is hydration! You need to make sure your child stays hydrated all through the illness. This is not a small task because, when he feels nauseated and is throwing up everything he eats and drinks, your child will not be feeling too hungry!!! However, our body asks for water when we become dehydrated, so the child should be very thirsty.
The danger when a child throws up and has fever and diarrhea is that he can lose his body liquids quickly. He also loses some important minerals. We need those minerals for many different reasons, but mainly because they help to maintain voltage across all our body cells so that our nerves, heart, muscles and brain can keep working. These minerals are also called electrolytes. An example of a situation where you lose electrolytes is when you exercise heavily. Electrolytes are lost in your sweat and must be replaced to keep the balance of electrolytes in your body and to keep the current passing through your body, which is why so many sports drinks have electrolytes added to them. The same thing happens to children when they suffer from gastroenteritis: they lose electrolytes! Losing electrolytes by chronic vomiting and/or diarrhea can exacerbate the vomiting, creating a vicious circle.
Breastmilk contains a lot of electrolytes and they are absorbed quickly by the body, so it is the treatment of choice for your child. Naturally, your baby must be willing to breastfeed for him to obtain breastmilk. If, for some reason, he does not want to breastfeed, you will have to find a way to give him the breastmilk. You can express your milk manually or with a breast pump and offer it to him with an eyedropper, a sippy cup or any container that your child will prefer. You can even freeze breastmilk and offer it to him as a Popsicle.
If your child completely refuses to breastfeed and you are not able to express your milk, you need to give him an electrolyte solution, called Pedialyte or Gastrolyte. There is a home-made recipe that can be used, but the Canadian Pediatric Society does not recommend using a homemade solution because of the problems that can happen when it is improperly made. Use this recipe only if you cannot get an electrolyte solution from a pharmacy.
Mix the following ingredients together thoroughly:
- 360 ml or 12 ounces of unsweetened, ready-to-drink orange juice
- 600 ml or 20 ounces of cooled boiled water
- 2,5 ml or ½ teaspoon of salt, never more.
NOTE: If you are breastfeeding, breastmilk is the perfect rehydration solution. The trick to keeping your child hydrated is to breastfeed him or offer him some liquid (breastmilk or an electrolyte solution) frequently and a little at a time. For example, breastfeed him a little bit or offer him a sip (5 to 10 ml or 1 to 2 teaspoons) of electrolyte solution every 5 to 10 minutes. In the beginning of the illness, he might vomit right after having the fluids, but keep on giving him just a little bit each time. He will absorb some electrolytes each time and it will help him. Increase the quantity of liquid when the vomiting decreases.
Remember, that you should quickly see a doctor or a nurse if your baby shows any of the following symptoms:
- Very little urine, dark (concentrated)
- Dry mouth
- Sunken fontanel
- No tears
- Weak and drowsy
- Blood in his stools
- Black stools
- Diarrhea lasting longer than 5 days
As for sports drinks – although adults take them, they are not recommended for babies or children. They contain a very high sugar concentration and are not a proper treatment for gastroenteritis.
By the way, if you do catch gastroenteritis, do not forget to keep well hydrated. And do not worry: you can still breastfeed your baby!!!