When your child is sick, everything seems to crowd in and collapse on you. It is difficult to cope, let alone sort out what to do.
Recently, my ten month old son pulled a bowl of boiling porridge onto himself. Our lovely family breakfast was shattered by his screams, which cut straight to our hearts. Almost immediately, his sister became distressed, more able to express herself than we were. After a morning in the emergency room, and ten days in silver dressings, the burns to his arm have healed well. At that time, it was a disaster, but we were lucky: we knew that he was sick as soon as it happened. We knew to strip his shirt off and pour water on him. And we knew to seek medical care immediately.
When I was working in the emergency department, we had a patient arrive in the middle of the night by ambulance. He was a two year old boy, and he had a cold. He was unhappy, but not particularly sick. His mother had been investigated by child services in the past and was keen to “prove” that she cared enough. He wasn’t that unwell, but we all understood how she got herself in that situation. I think the junior docs were a lot more understanding than the paramedics, though.
So how do you know when your child is really sick?
Kids can get better very fast, but they can also get very sick very quickly. Unlike adults, they can sometimes seem a lot more settled when they are really sick. This can sometimes trick people into missing the signs, so how do you really know?
Beware of the cuddly child
Children who have accidents or get colds and flus are normally cranky and irritable. They normally have insufficient sleep, and it shows. They often want lots of cuddles, but they are usually pretty unsettled at the same time.
However, when kids get really sick, they can become very flat. “Flat” is a word medical staff use that looks exactly what it sounds like: an infant or child with little facial expression, cuddling their parent, but not really distressed when they are put down. They tend to have no energy, and don’t really react to what is going on around them. Sometimes, it can seem like a sick child has “settled.” But if your child gets sleepy and drowsy, and stops really noticing what goes on around them - call an ambulance. They might be really sick.
Check their nappy or potty
Do you notice when your child goes to the potty? When children are sick they dehydrate rapidly. A lack of wet nappies or wees in the potty is one of the early signs that they are not doing well. If you pick it up early, you can prevent disaster. A common example of this is gastro. Gastro isn’t usually life-threatening and usually only needs hospitalization if the child gets dehydrated. If you think your child might be dehydrated, give them water or diluted juice, or anything they like and can keep down. If you can’t fix it, see a doctor immediately.
Believe your child
My two year old is currently learning how to manipulate her parents. She often tells us she “has a sore tummy,” but if we ask further questions, she explains that she “needs choc to fix it.” Last Thursday, she spent the day telling me she had a sore tummy and needed cuddles to fix it, so I gave her lots of cuddles and reassurance. When I got to the end of the day, I realised she had emptied her bowels four times over the course of the day. In retrospect, she probably was having cramps and was feeling pretty rotten.
Sometimes it is easy to take our kids verbal skills for granted. Often they can tell us when things are wrong and they feel awful: they are not always trying it on. While we deal with their manipulations, it is important to realize they might be telling the truth.
The truth is, almost all parents know when their child is really sick. Unfortunately, we feel so much pressure to do the right thing and be good parents that we fail to believe our own judgement. It is ok to get it wrong. It is ok to feel stupid. If you think your child is sick, then call an ambulance, beat down doors and wring necks until you can get someone to pay attention to you. You might be wrong, but there is an excellent chance you are right, and that is the only important thing.