As parents, we go through many “firsts” with our children, some joyful and others troubling. One new experience that can stand out as particularly unpleasant is the startled or fearful reaction of your child the first time they vomit.
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We stand by helplessly trying to reassure our kiddos that, yes, even though this doesn’t make sense in anybody’s world, food can sometimes go up, in the wrong direction. Children just don’t understand what’s happening or why. They just want it to stop — and so do you.
While vomiting is typically a sign of a stomach virus, unexplained vomiting in a child can be harder to identify and can be worrisome.
Vomiting itself isn’t a condition or illness. It’s a symptom of another problem. Finding the underlying cause is the key to treating it.
Sometimes, episodes of vomiting are mild and short-lived. Most times, your child may start throwing up out of the blue. Other times, vomiting is a sign of something more serious.
Pinpointing what’s behind a bout of vomiting — especially causes of sudden vomiting — in a child may not be straightforward, Dr. Goldman says.
“Kids, especially younger ones, can be more sensitive to certain bacteria, making them more susceptible to viruses or food poisoning,” he continues. “They don’t respond the same way adults with a more developed immune system do.”
They may struggle to articulate how they feel. And a lot may depend on your child’s age.
In infants and toddlers, sometimes an anatomical issue (existing from birth) is responsible. For example, the connection between their food pipe and stomach isn’t fully developed, making it easier for stuff to come up. In most cases, a doctor can often fix it before your child reaches adulthood, Dr. Goldman says.
In infants, you may see excessive spitting up or reflux. With toddlers, it’s usually a stomach virus, he adds.
In older children, your healthcare provider may consider other sudden vomiting causes, from common ailments (such as a viral infection) to emergency situations (such as toxic substance overdose or appendicitis).
Depending on the range of symptoms, your child’s provider may probe for stomach or digestive issues, including:
“Ultimately, vomiting is our body’s response to a noxious stimuli or a sensation that isn’t right and it wants to get rid of it,” explains Dr. Freiberg. “And with the stomach, there’s one of two ways that things can move. It can either move forward, or it can be expelled back up. And it’s a signal that’s it’s something bad — it’s dangerous, it might harm us and our bodies will want to get rid of it.”
In other cases, your provider may see signs of conditions with a strong psychological aspect, such as bulimia. There are also times when they may suspect pregnancy.
If your child has an illness that’s causing vomiting, Dr. Goldman and Dr. Freiberg offer these tips:
Watch your child’s symptoms carefully and, if vomiting continues or resumes, work with your healthcare provider to pinpoint the issue.
If you have a baby who’s vomiting, advice varies based on whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed:
Sometimes, kids get sick. They go through illnesses as they build stronger immune systems.
Instilling good handwashing habits can help your child avoid some illnesses that cause vomiting. Encourage your children to wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water for at least 30 seconds. Remind them to scrub their fingernails and in between their fingers as well.
A short episode of vomiting isn’t usually concerning. But you should see your child’s healthcare provider if certain other symptoms accompany the vomiting.
Watch for decreased urination in any child who’s having trouble with vomiting. For infants, this means no wet diapers within six hours. Also, if your baby is experiencing projectile vomiting, call your provider.
In all kids, watch for green color in vomit, as well as fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.8 degrees Celsius) — or fever of 101 F (38.3 C) for more than three days.
Also, look for these signs of dehydration:
“If your child is throwing up and not able to keep anything down, particularly liquids, then they really need to be seen by a doctor,” stresses Dr. Freiberg. “They might need help getting the fluids into them through an IV to make sure that they stay well hydrated.”
If any symptom(s) concern you, call your healthcare provider.
Vomiting is one of those symptoms we all dread, especially for our kids. Remember that your provider is there to help.
“If you have any questions or any concerns, definitely seek out medical attention,” encourages Dr. Freiberg. “Don’t hesitate to meet or talk with a doctor to see what we can do to help.”