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Feeding Sick Children


When a child gets sick, it will affect how he or she eats. Different foods may need to be offered until the child gets better, and more foods need to be offered during recovery. Generally, it is recommended that a child continue to be fed with foods of their choice throughout an illness, rather than having his/her foods restricted. This allows the child to continue to meet his/her nutritional requirements while providing extra nutrients that some illnesses may require for healing.

Why does a sick child need to eat nutritious meals?

A sick child should eat well even if he/she is not active. He/she needs nutrients to fight infections and replace nutrients that were lost during his/her illness. During illness a child may be too weak to eat, having trouble swallowing, or finding it difficult to eat because of a cough or blocked nose.

Infection often reduces appetite. It also increases the need for some nutrients if:

  • nutrients are poorly absorbed by the gut or
  • the body uses nutrients faster than usual (e.g. to repair the immune system).

If a sick child does not eat enough, his/her own body fat and muscles will be used for energy and nutrients. He/she will lose weight and become undernourished. Even during a short illness, a child’s growth often falters. The immune systems may become less effective and not be able to fight infections.

What to feed a sick child?

  • During illness the challenge is to continue feeding the child. Sick children frequently reject food or eat only small quantities of food offered to them. It is important not to withhold foods or liquids.
  • Here are some tips on how to feed children during illness:
  • If a child is still breastfeeding, breastfeed more frequently and longer at each feed. If a breastfeeding infant is too weak to suckle, you can express milk and feed it from a spoon or cup.
  • Give frequent small feeds.
  • Give nutrient-dense foods that are soft, varied and the child’s favorite.
  • Give mashed or soft foods if the child has trouble swallowing. However do not dilute foods or milk.
  • Be patient but persistent; offer foods that the child likes to increase appetite.
  • Hold the child on your lap or keep him/ her sitting up (Do not feed a child who’s lying down; this can cause choking).
  • If a child vomits, wait for ten minutes and continue offering fluids or food after that.
  • Do not force a child to eat.

During diarrhea or fever, a sick child often loses or uses more water than usual. Therefore, she needs plenty of clean and safe drinks. Boiled water, yoghurt drinks and other nutritious liquids should be given rather than carbonated drinks or cordials.

A child who is breastfeeding should be breastfed frequently. A child who is not breastfeeding should be given plenty of liquid to drink every 1-2 hours.

Feeding a child during recuperation

Bear in mind that recuperation takes time. Duration is an important aspect of nutritional care. Extra attention to feeding should continue for 2 or more weeks following illness. Feeding during recuperation is critical to help the child “catching up” from the nutritional losses.

During recuperation,

  • Children often have hearty appetites and will be eager to eat more food than usual. Continue to feed the child frequently.
  • Children should be encouraged to eat more at every meal, and be given an extra meal each day (or extra snacks in between meals) for at least two weeks.
  • Continue to give nutritious food such as meat, fish, liver, egg, milk, and oil to meet the requirements for catch-up growth. Extra food is needed until the child regain his/her weight that was lost during illness and is growing well again.


Last reviewed : 04 September 2009
Writer : Fatimah bt. Salim