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Nutrition for Kids with Serious Medical Conditions

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: March 17, 2021

Reviewed: January 16, 2024

Nutrition for Kids with Serious Medical Conditions
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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 eating plans as children without chronic disease. The nature and severity of their health condition, age, sex, 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 different 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 may change over time. For instance, kids with cystic fibrosis often need to take digestive enzymes with meals and snacks. How many and which types of enzymes may vary 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 may negatively affect growth and development. Some medications increase the need for specific nutrients. In these situations, meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist, or RDN, is valuable.

The RDN can:

  • Work with your family to make sure your child gets key nutrients.
  • Propose creative and nutritious ways to include healthy foods.
  • Suggest high-calorie, high-protein foods and beverages 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 benefits as well as risks. 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 health care team have made. Fear of the unknown is normal. 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 feels included. If family time only 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.

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