10 Ways to Make a Sick Day Fun

Pediatrician-inspired tricks for keeping an achy, sniffly grandchild all smiles.

By Julie D. Andrews

When a child catches even a slight case of the sniffles, a family's schedule can quickly run off the tracks — especially when both parents work. Children's illnesses cause parents to lose up to 29 work days a year, reports the National Association of Sick Child Daycare. Win a gold star from parents by playing back-up caretaker-slash-nurse to a sick grandchild who can't be admitted to child care. Cheer her up, comfort her, and crack a smile on that gloomy face with these pediatrician-inspired ideas. One caveat: Have an over-abundance of fun on a sick day and your grandchild may start coming down with fevers more often — of the wink-wink variety!

Cue Movie Marathon: A sick day won't involve romper-room action, but it doesn't have to feel like being stuck in a drab sick ward either. When did you last watch Harry Potter movies back to back... to back? Your grandchild probably hasn't relived the magic in a while, either. Another calm project to do with a sick grandchild: craft a cut-and-paste family scrapbook, suggests New York-based child psychologist Tian Dayton, Ph.D. Try this rollicking srapbook theme: America's Funniest Family Photos. Did Dad ever have long hair? Did Mom ever wear mini skirts? Hand-selected snapshots from the trove are sure to unleash grandchild giggles trapped by the bug. If your grandchild can write, make Mom and Dad proud by having him scrawl clever captions.

Read it Again, Gram!: Storytime is another soothing bedside activity. Thumb through Katie Caught a Cold together. Part of the award-winning Dr. Hippo book series written by pediatrician Charlotte Cowan, M.D., it tells the story of an ice-skating polar bear who catches a nasty cold — and safely recovers from it.

Make a Funny Sneeze Face: Teach your grandchild to use his elbow — not a mitten or sleeve — to cover his mouth when coughing, says Dr. Cowan. Will it look silly? Absolutely! And your grandchild will love it. This prevents tens of thousands of germs from becoming airborne. Think about how many people sneeze into a hand before extending it for you to shake. Keep your grandchild from being one of them.

Popsicles Unlimited: The FDA last week banned children ages 2 and younger from taking over-the-counter cold medications — and announced that it is still investigating the effect of the meds on children ages 2-11 — but time-honored pediatric practices still work. This is one occasion when your grandchild is allowed as many fruity frozen treats as he can slurp down. Fluids not only flush out germs and keep the body from dehydrating, says pediatric nurse practitioner Jennifer Disabato, but the liquid decreases the thickness of secretions and reduces lethargy.

Any flavor does the trick, but you might skip grape. If your grandchild has to see the doctor, it may be hard to tell if her purple-stained lips are a result of Popsicle overload or an oxygen saturation problem, says Disabato. Juice on a stick is better than a pour from the family O.J. carton because it may keep your sick grandchild from picking up more germs. When nobody is watching, 47 percent of consumers drink their juice straight from the carton, says Disabato. Tip: An average-size child weighing between 30 and 40 pounds should take in 2-3 ounces hourly, advises Disabato. Half a Popsicle contains about 3 ounces of fluid. Another kid-friendly replenishing treat? Jell-O.

Cheer Direct: Nobody likes being sick. And it's no secret that gloomy moods can accompany colds. Bring a smile to your coughing grandchild's face by letting her pick a favorite faraway relative or friend to call. Even if she gets an answering machine, hearing a loved one's voice may lift her spirits. Do Mom or Dad have a Webcam? If yes, try to arrange a lunch-time check-in so your grandchild can see their caring faces.

Pamper Your Grandchild Silly: Viruses cause fatigue and irritability, so sleep is essential when a grandchild isn't feeling well. Make your grandchild's slumber more comfortable. Pack a lavender-scented pillow spray, sleep mask, or moisturizer. Lavender has been shown to promote relaxation and comfort, says Disabato.

Free Up Passages: For grandchildren younger than 7, who have anatomically smaller airways, floppy tongues, and less space for mucus, Disabato advises plugging in a cool-mist humidifier. This can soothe a stuffed-up grandchild by thinning secretions. The humidifier breaks water into droplets and releases them into air, keeping nasal passages moist — and runny! Give your grandchild his very own box of tissues to make him feel special and search out the extra-soft variety that won't irritate the nose. TIP: Rub a little petroleum jelly at the bottom of your grandchild's nose to keep the skin there from getting chapped and raw, suggests Dr. Cowan. And don't forget the flavored lip balm.

Stomp Out Sickness: Yes, we know, you've been saying it since your own children were tykes, "Wash your hands!" Children touch more than 300 spaces every 30 minutes, says Dr. Kelly Reynolds, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Scrubbing hands — for 20-30 seconds — alleviates germs, she adds. Of course, getting your squirming little tot to stand still that long can be a challenge, so Dr. Cowan suggests singing a song such as "Happy Birthday" with your grandchild to make hand-washing feel less chore-like. TIP: Wet hands transmit germs more efficiently than dry ones, so drying hands after rinsing is key.

Focus on Fun: Remember: A sick day is about brightening your grandchild's day, not playing maid. "When caring for a sniffly grandchild, there's no time to clean everything and no need to try," says Dr. Reynolds. Focus on disinfecting the spots germy fingers most likely touched: doorknobs, light switches, TV remotes, refrigerators — and toys!

Warm the Belly, Warm the Heart: "There's no magic food for a sick child," says Kate O'Keefe, a New York-based nutritionist. The herbal teas she recommends for adults don't work for children whose palates are undeveloped. "It's natural for a sick child to not want to eat, so keeping meals simple is best. Warm up soups and stews or a special family meal to create a healing environment," says O'Keefe. "The best medicine for a sick child is the nurturing love of a grandparent."

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