As if raising small humans weren’t challenging enough, sometimes, we also have to do it while we’re feeling our absolute worst. But how are you supposed to keep your kids alive — and entertained! — when you feel like you can barely keep your head above (the toilet bowl) water?
Parenting while sick seems like an impossible task. Yet, time and again, people from all around the world somehow manage to keep themselves and their kids functioning during cold and flu seasons. Are they heroes with magical powers? No doubt! But we’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re not doing anything you can’t do.
Since our pregnancy books and parenting classes didn’t seem to cover the how-tos of parenting while sick, we thought we’d go straight to the everyday experts who have lived through the less-than-ideal situation to get some answers. Ahead are some of their best tips and advice so you can tackle germ season like a pro.
Chances are, you’re barely feeling energetic enough to shower, let alone come up with a list of activities to keep your energetic kids occupied. Having games, books, and crafts, or other tasks ready to go can make a world of difference for a restless toddler. Lisa Alemi of Move Mama Move tells SheKnows she created “a special activity basket” specifically for sick days. “The basket has activities that we don’t normally get to do together, so there is some novelty and excitement about it,” Alemi says. “My son gets to color with markers, read iSpy books, play with felt boards, organize his sorting games, and other activities that are easy for him to complete on his own while I rest.”
If you want to make game-time even more fun, look no further than your linen drawer. “The easiest thing to do with little ones is to make the lounge or living area into a camp,” empty nester life coach Lesley Benson says. Grab all of the essentials — pillows, blankets, rugs, duvets — and have your kids build the collapsable utopia of their dreams. “It’s amazing how long their attention spans can be kept on this,” Benson adds.
Another perk about forts? You can easily build them around the couch, which is likely going to be your home base as you recover. Lifestyle blogger Marquis Clarke of SimplyClarke swears that building forts and picking out a movie lineup keeps her kids entertained enough that she can sometimes even send a few emails. “This helps kids feel like we are doing something fun, even though we are really relaxing on the couch,” she says.
When your kiddos need a break from coloring, have them help you out by playing doctor, suggests Michelle Harris, founder of Parenting Pathfinders. They can bring you water, check your temperature, and even fetch an ice pack or heating pad. “This will not only keep them engaged but will help build empathy,” she says. Plus, it gives parents an opportunity to speak openly with their children and remind them that even adults have hard days. “Be honest about how you’re feeling instead of pretending that everything is okay,” Harris adds.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to set reasonable limits. “I break my time up into small chunks. If I look at the day as a whole, the end will feel like forever,” says Jessica Randhawa of The Forked Spoon. “But if I work in 15- to 30-minute segments, it all seems more bearable. For example, 15 minutes of games, 15 minutes of reading, and then maybe 30 minutes of screen time or television.”
Bend the screen time rules
You’ve played hard. Now you need some well-earned rest. Friends, it’s time to turn on the TV. Were those gasps of horror I heard? Yes, I know. Screen time has gotten a bad rap, and for good reason. The science shows excessive screen time can lead to developmental delays and attention issues. But folks, the two episodes of PAW Patrol you let your kids watch while you’re retching into a bucket isn’t going to forever ruin your kids. Plenty of parents, such as Shannon Serpette, who is the chief editor at Mom Loves Best, have turned to the screens — and their kids survived!
“When I had the flu and I had a baby and a toddler to take care of, I’ll be the first to admit I had absolutely no restrictions on their screen time use,” Serpette says. “Was it one of my prouder moments letting them binge-watch Caillou for a couple of days straight? Nope, but I was sick and I had to keep them entertained while I was down for the count. Do what you need to do and don’t judge yourself for it.”
You can still make screen time an interactive experience, adds Carson Quinn, founder of Zindsey.com. She recommends parents “still engage during a show, pointing out things and asking questions.” If you are feeling guilty (or just a little sick of hearing “Let It Go” for the umpteenth time), now’s the time to download any number of educational apps for kids.
Lower your dining expectations
Eating might be the last thing on your mind, but kids can’t afford to skip a meal. Make it easy on yourself by having items on hand, says Kate Wehr. “Don’t worry about ‘real meals’ for a couple of days,” she says. “If people are able to eat, put out fresh fruits, crackers, cheeses, yogurt, peanut butter toast, anything quick and easy.” Make sure to pack in all of the Vitamin C you can get too. “We peel citrus together,” Quinn says. “Clementines and grapefruits will keep our immune systems boosted and little hands (er, attention spans) occupied.”
If even that is too much, many moms recommended ordering dinner or getting groceries through a delivery service. Or, if you have family and friends nearby, ask them to come by with a homemade meal — even better if they stay and play with the kids for a bit.
Ask for help
Remember when you had a newborn and everyone offered to help? Now’s the time to take them up on their offers, says Laurie Ulster. “When you need it, especially when you’re sick and your kids are little, ask [for help],” Ulster adds. “Parents are not superheroes even when we feel like we have to be.”
Call the grandparents, your siblings, other parents from school, or your neighbors. Hell, even call your friends at the crack of dawn, as Jaimie Seaton did when she, her three-year-old daughter, and newborn son had a stomach bug. “I hated to do it, but I called a friend at 5 a.m. and asked for help,” Seaton says. “Her husband was not happy, but I was genuinely afraid for my children’s safety. This amazing woman came to my house and took care of us all day. It can be tough to ask for help but sometimes it’s necessary.”
If you need to and have the means, hiring a babysitter is a great route. “I work to have a healthy network of sitters that I can call when I need them,” says Aubry Parks-Fried, head of content and strategy at Sittercity. “Having just one go-to has left me in a bind one too many times when my health didn’t align with my sitter’s schedule.”
Getting sick can be especially hard if you’re far away from family. But tech can help. “I encourage my family members to FaceTime us throughout the day, as it helps make [my daughter] less bored,” says Liz Jeneault of Faveable. Screen time wins again!
Go easy on yourself
Finally, ditch the idea that you have to do it all. “One of the best things I did for myself when [my sons] were younger was to give up on being perfect,” says educator and single mom Kaywanda Lamb. Accept that the meals won’t be as lavish, your bedtime stories will be a little shorter, and your patience is going to be a bit thinner. “Mostly, giving myself grace, turning off the voice that said I had to be perfect, and working on getting over the sickness helps,” Lamb adds.
Above all, “take care of yourself,” says lifestyle blogger Holly Chubb of Busy Being Blessed. Rest, drink plenty of fluids, take a hot shower, and eat what you can stomach. Taking the time to tend to your health teaches children about self-care and gives them an example of how to act when they’re adults. “You are setting the tone for their future,” Chubb adds.
These tips won’t necessarily make you feel better, but hopefully, they’ll make being sick suck a little bit less.