Ultimate guide to kid vomit: Causes and treatment

From what causes kids to vomit to how to make clean-up a little less awful, here is everything you need to know about dealing with puke.
Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Barf. Puke. Vomit. Call it what you will, but rest assured that as a parent, you’ll encounter kid vomit—and it won’t be fun. Even the most seasoned, BTDT parents can find themselves fully frazzled when their kid starts throwing up. (Heck, even Today’s Parent’s editor-in-chief Sasha Emmons calls vomit her “kryptonite.”)

But the fact is, kid vomit happens. And when it does, you may have some questions. Here are the answers:

My kid just threw up. Why?
Here are some of the most common reasons kids throw up:

  • Viral gastroenteritis, also known as “stomach flu,” is the most common culprit. This infection can last anywhere from a couple of days to more than a week.
  • Motion sickness is a common reason for vomiting. About 50 percent of kids feel sick to their stomachs while moving in cars or planes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Food poisoning. The symptoms mimic viral gastroenteritis, and begin anywhere from a few hours to a few days after eating contaminated food.
  • Some kids are just a bit barfy by nature. They throw up when they cough, cry or get too excited, or if they see something that turns their stomach, if they eat or drink too much, or run around after eating, and so on.
  • Vomiting can be caused other kinds of infections, some of which can be serious. If your child is vomiting repeatedly and has other symptoms such as fever, lethargy or pain, consult with your doctor.
  • Some long-term illnesses or digestive issues, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease, can cause chronic vomiting, off and on for months at a time.

Do I have to worry about my kid getting dehydrated?
Yep, dehydration is the top concern when a kid is vomiting. She’ll likely feel pretty thirsty afterwards (along with wanting that yucky taste out of her mouth). But that doesn’t mean you should give her a big glass of water, because it’s likely to come right back up.

What should I give my vomiting kid to drink?
Try small but frequent sips of water or very watered-down juice.

You could also offer an oral rehydration solution, like Pedialyte, which contains just the right balance of sugar and salts to maximize fluid absorption. If you go this route, alternate it with water for the first six to 12 hours. You may need to spoon the fluid in every few minutes. Or try a Pedialyte freezer pop.

What about ginger ale? Although many swear it relieves nausea and some studies back that up, too much of the sugary pop can also exacerbate stomach problems. Warm ginger tea, sweetened with a bit of honey, is a better choice.

If your baby is breastfeeding, keep breastfeeding! Do so frequently, following your baby’s lead. This will help ensure that lost fluid is replaced.

Most importantly, keep a close eye on your kid for signs of dehydration. These include:

  • Peeing less frequently than usual
  • Dry mouth
  • No tears when crying
  • Lethargy and/or irritability
  • Deep, rapid breathing

See your doctor if some or all of these signs are present.

Can I let my kid eat? He’s asking for food!
As gross as this sounds to adults, it’s pretty common for a kid to vomit the contents of her stomach and ask for a snack five minutes later. Should you let her?

Advice on this one goes both ways. Some doctors recommend waiting as many as eight hours before offering food if your child is vomiting because of gastroenteritis. But if she’s begging for food, eight hours is clearly a looong time for her to wait.

Other doctors say you can go ahead and offer small amounts of food if your kid says he’s hungry right after vomiting.

What kinds of foods? Again, experts have different views. Many recommend sticking to the “BRAT” diet: bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. But newer research suggests that sick kids can actually eat the same foods they always do. It probably makes sense to avoid fried, greasy foods, as well as dairy and excessive sugar. Ask your doctor for advice.

My kid seems to find throwing up quite traumatic. What can I do?
Try not to freak out; she’s taking her cues from you. Soothe your child, rub her back, acknowledge her feelings, and tell her it’s okay and that it will be over soon. If your kid has long hair, tie it back. Puke hair = terrible for everyone involved.

Can I send my kid to school?
When deciding if your child is well enough to go to school, take her overall wellness and ability to manage symptoms into account.

Definitely keep her home from school if you suspect dehydration, or if diarrhea and vomiting are accompanied by pain or a fever of 38.5°C or higher. Send her back when the symptoms subside. If your child is feeling all better and doesn’t experience vomiting or loose stool within a half-hour after breakfast, she may actually be good to go.

And keep him home from school if he’s experiencing symptoms that will disrupt his day. Kids younger than five should stay home because they’re more prone to accidents and poor hand-washing, which can spread viral gastroenteritis. Older children, however, may be able to manage without incident provided they feel well enough. You’ll know best how well your child can cope.

What about Gravol? Can I give it to my kid to stop the vomiting?
The College of Family Physicians of Canada says that Gravol (Dimenhydrinate) appears to be safe for kids two years and older. If your child is younger, ask your doctor for advice.

Gravol is most effective for vomiting caused by motion sickness. Doctors generally do not recommend using it for gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”), since the virus will resolve on its own, and it’s more important to focus on staying hydrated.

My kid didn’t make it to the toilet. How can I make clean-up a bit less awful?
It’s okay to admit it: cleaning up kid vomit is among the most awful parenting jobs out there. Here are a few tips to make it just the tiniest bit better.

  • Towels are your friend. Keep some around at all times when your kid is sick. It’s much easier to throw a towel in the washing machine (dumping the chunks into the toilet first—sorry!) than it is to scoop and wipe vomit off the floor, or worse, the carpet (ugh! The WORST).
  • Keep spare sheets and a blanket in each child’s room—perhaps in the top drawer of his dresser, or stashed away in his closet. This prevents hunting through the linen closet in the dark trying to find a sheet that fits. Or, double-up on bed sheets so in middle of the night, you can just strip a layer off. (Place a waterproof sheet or mattress cover in between the sheets.)
  • Keep a waterproof mattress cover on your kid’s bed at all times to avoid the puke stinking up and staining the mattress.
  • In the middle of the night, gather up the mattress cover, sheets and blankets, and put them somewhere where the smell won’t bother anyone until the next day. (Outside or in a basement bathroom are options.) Use gloves when dealing with it the next morning.
  • If you have a partner, one of you should take care of your kid (wiping him down or giving him a quick shower) while the other one deals with the mess. Divide and conquer!
  • The toilet can seem really far away to a little kid who needs to throw up. Keep a bucket or garbage bin close to the bed and explain what it’s for.

I’m going to catch whatever my kid has, aren’t I?
Depends on why she’s vomiting. Viral gastroenteritis is very contagious, and if you’re the taking care of her or cleaning up, you’re definitely at risk. Wash your hands obsessively, and hers too. Clean anything that has vomit on it with very hot water. Some parents clean up vomit wearing rubber gloves, and that’s not a bad idea.

    Read more:
    How to know when your child is too sick for school
    Best ways to treat cold and flu in kids 
    Immune system boosters: 5 foods you need to eat 

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