How to keep the stomach flu away from baby

December 16, 2010

"An unrelenting stomach flu has descended on us..and it's brought all three of us to our knees," wrote the parents of a toddler not much older than my own. "We'll spare you the details, but let's just say we wouldn't wish this on our worst enemy."

I knew exactly how they felt, since we got a bout of this in mid-November. And we knew exactly who to thank for our queasy stomachs, since letters came home from my son's school warning about a rampant bug---a bug that, in the end, would hit every kid but one in his class.

And I know this is an issue for many of you out there.

"Every other day for the past week and a half, I've had one of my three daughters home for not feeling well," wrote Andrea on my Facebook page. "I've been showering in Lysol."

"I have washed hands and toilets, bleached and Lysoled everything and it always has run through my three kids anyway," laments Denise.

So what to do, especially if your child regularly comes into contact with other kids at daycares or play spaces? I turned to Melissa Delaney, the director of Christ Lutheran Child Care Center, a well-regarded daycare in Chestnut Hill. She agrees with many of you that this is a rite of winter that is almost impossible to avoid.

"We've had it go through the center the past six Decembers," she sighs. "No matter what we do, it seems Impossible to stop."

If your child is in a daycare, Delaney says there should already be regular cleanliness procedures around food serving and diaper changing. Those should be ramped up when a stomach bug outbreak occurs. The center should also increase its effort to sanitize toys and common space. As well, you should get quick notification from providers that something nasty is afoot so you can watch your child.

If your kid starts to show symptoms, Delaney says the directive is clear. "Stay home. Please. Here you are not allowed to return until they have had a normal stool and no vomiting for 24 hours." Check with your daycare provider about what the procedures are there to deal with sick children and double check with your health care provider that enough is being done.

On Facebook, Teresa asks a very pointed question. "Stomach bugs confuse me. They say you get it from sticking dirty (fecal) fingers in your mouth. You mean to tell me that many people don't wash their hands after going to the bathroom?"

The answer sadly is yes, lots of people don't make it regular habit to wash their hands after heading to the restroom. And job one should be making that change---not just swishing your hands under water, but giving yourself a good 20 second hospital style scrub with soap.

But what goes on with little kids is a little tougher. Anyone who's changed a sick diaper knows, well, you're dealing with a lot of material, a lot of it runny and all of it potent. Even good attempts at cleaning the child, the changing area, bagging up the offending diaper, etc., still isn't always enough to completely combat this microscopically powerful bacteria. All you need is one child to make contact in some way and stick his contaminated fingers onto shared toys and food and into another child's mouth.

Once that happens and your child is at home, all it seems you can do is clean, clean, clean and let the sickness run its course. "Make sure your child is hydrated and monitor their mood. Do they seem lethargic, not themselves?" advises Delaney.

This leads her into some larger advice for getting through the winter season. Delaney says expect kids, especially those going through their first year or two in daycare or preschool, to get sick---a lot. "It's going to be a hard winter. You can expect them to get 7 to 10 colds, often back to back," she warns. Colds are particularly hard on babies and toddlers who can't blow their noses yet and tend to ingest a lot of the mucus, upsetting their stomachs even more.

Delaney says parents often use fever as a measuring stick, and that's a mistake. She says kids may not spike a temperature, but show listlessness, lack of appetite, coughing and other symptoms. And that can be a sign of something seriously wrong. "We have a three day rule here. If there is a lot of discharge or coughing for three days, they have to be seen by a pediatrician."

I'm reminded of the story from a friend about a woman in her book club. She had been complaining for a few weeks that her child had no fever, but a cold that wouldn't clear up. The other women in the book club urged her to take the child to the doctor. Turned out, the little one had pneumonia!

"You'd be amazed at how often we see that," says Delaney. "The bottom line is a cold should peak and wane. It's a mistake to just look for the fever."

And Delaney had one tip that would probably be a surprise to parents: Dress for your day in layers. All day long your clothes are picking up the coughs and sneezes of your co-workers and the people you bump into at lunchtime restaurants or the places you run for errands. Then you go to get your kid. The first thing you want to do is hug him, smushing his face into all the yuckies caught on you. Instead, wear a layer you can easily strip off, giving your little one a fresh place to show you how glad he is to see you.

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