Feeding children nutritious food can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. When a child isn't feeling well, these challenges can multiply. This may leave parents feeling uncertain about how best to support growth and development. If you find yourself in this situation, you can cope successfully, and ensure your child thrives, even in the face of a serious health condition.
One Size Doesn't Fit All
Children with chronic diseases are just as unique in their preferences and diet plans as children without chronic disease. The nature and severity of their health condition, age, gender, treatment plans, activity levels, and many other factors play a role in nutrition needs.
While well-meaning friends and family may share stories of diets or dietary supplements that helped another child, keep in mind that this may not be the right plan for your child. For example, some children with cancer have trouble eating enough to stay at a healthy weight, while other children — especially after treatment ends — face a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Nutrition Needs Can Change
For children with conditions that directly affect the digestive tract, nutrition and medication needs will change over time. For instance, kids with cystic fibrosis nearly always need digestive enzymes, taken with meals and snacks. How much and what types of enzymes varies from case to case, and what worked in the past may need to be adjusted as a child grows, matures and food preferences change.
Supporting Growth and Development
For children who are not eating enough, the sooner you address the issue, the better. Even a small amount of weight loss or failure to gain weight as expected can negatively affect growth and development. Some medications increase the need for specific nutrients. In these situations, consultation with a registered dietitian nutritionist, or RDN, is invaluable.
The RDN can:
- Work with your family to make sure your child gets enough of all key nutrients.
- Propose creative and nutritious ways to get in healthy foods.
- Suggest high-calorie, high-protein products as needed.
The RDN will track your child's growth and development, alerting you and the medical team if additional nutrition measures such as tube feeding are needed. Should these options be suggested, parents should know they carry risks and benefits. Be sure to discuss both with your medical team to make an informed choice.
Supporting Your Child, Removing the Fear
If your child needs specialized nutrition support, one of the best things you can do is express confidence in the decisions you and your child's healthcare team have made. Fear of the unknown is normal, and you should discuss these fears and concerns with the RDN. Ask for help as much as needed, and have the RDN or home health care practitioner explain and demonstrate special feeding instructions.
Finally, make your child feel included. If the only family time involves food, this can make a child on nutrition support feel left out. Try to build family rituals and family time around activities that do not involve food and meals.