How to cope with sickness behaviour

How to cope with sickness behaviour

Sickness behaviour, changes in your child’s behaviour and mood when ill, is a real thing. Knowing about it and how to cope with it, can reassure you that you’re not just making it up. Even if it doesn’t actually speed up the process or make it all better, at least you know you’re not alone. And sometimes just knowing that can help us soldier on. Soldiering on through adversity is what us Mums do best after all (sad but true, I know).

Our household is currently coming out of two weeks of illness. During this time both my children and my husband managed to get really (really) sick, and I was the only one left standing. Literally. It has been, quite simply, horrible; and that may be the understatement of the year. While hubby is taking much longer to improve than my children, they all have a way to go until they’re 100% again.

I’m also well aware that my two are much older than most of your children, and they can verbalise how they’re feeling pretty well. Miss six told me it felt like the couch was lying on top of her, and the next day said she felt like she’d fallen off a tall building. I was pretty impressed with this to tell the truth. As I know she’s never actually had a couch on top of her OR fallen off a tall building, thankfully.

Both of my children displayed behaviour changes while they were sick, especially at the beginning. And it reminded me that they always do become “different people” when they’re not feeling 100%. And chances are your child changes too…


How to know when something is up

One of the first things you may notice – before you even realise your child is sick – is that their general personality changes.

And by personality, I mean the overall temperament of your child on a good day (which hopefully is most often). This personality comes across in mood, vocalisations and behaviour.

Let’s use my daughter as an example. Most of the time I would say she is free-spirited and happy; you’ll often find her singing and happily role-playing with her toys, on a good day.

However, the day before she got sick she was whiny and argumentative and burst into tears at the drop of a hat.

Compare this to my son, who hasn’t stopped moving at high speed since he was born. He is highly active and needs to talk, hum, and be constantly on the move until he falls asleep. He is also prone to arguing for the sake of it and questioning why things have to be done certain ways. That’s just how he is (hard work; although I love him dearly).

When he is ill, he just stops. It’s probably the only time he’s quiet, truth be told.

Two very different children with two very different personalities and two very different sickness behaviours. Is it wrong to say I don’t actually mind my son when he’s sick, because it’s pretty much the only time he slows down and stops?

What I’m saying here, is that it is normal for a child who is ill to have behaviour changes. And often this behaviour can kick in before any physical symptoms are noticed.


Behaviour change

This behaviour change you see in your child when ill actually has a name : sickness behaviour. It’s often associated discomfort and/or fevers, or, in my household at least, sickness in general.

Sickness behaviour displays as set of changes in both attitude and conduct (because lets face it as your mood gets low, your behaviour often reflects that).

You may see this as a decrease in activity, increased irritability, less interest in surroundings, whining and more tears. Your child may show more comfort seeking behaviour and yet be harder to console.

Physical symptoms like reduced appetite and disturbed sleep patterns are also typical. This means your child is likely running on low fuel and little to no emotional tolerance due to missed sleep. It’s no wonder tantrums and acting out are common. It makes sense when you’re in pain and frustrated about it.

My daughter got whiny, tearful, and clingy one moment, then didn’t want to be touched the next. And she also got angry around the third day, very angry about being sick. She’s not pleasant when she’s angry.

Knowing your child and seeing a change in their behaviour can be the most important clue to how sick they are. Of course, if your little one is still a baby and hasn’t been sick all that often (touch wood), then it will take some time for you to recognise this, although hopefully you never need to.


Banish the Mum guilt

Now I’ve mentioned that behaviour can change early on in an illness, and it’s one of the first signs of sickness. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, right.  You may have noticed your child’s behaviour becoming extra painful, but not have attributed to illness until AFTER the fact. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

Chances are you will feel some Mum (or Dad) guilt over reacting strongly to the whining or complaints, but you really weren’t to know it was because your child was already sick!

To be fair we can normally tell that something is up, but we never know if it’s related to illness vs just a bad day – until they get well, classically ill. Especially if they are too young to describe what is wrong.

But then thinking back you do the “oh, so that’s why……..”

Please don’t feel bad about this, it’s hard to tell if you child is grumpy because they’re tired, hungry, reacting to separation anxiety, had a fight with a friend (when older), or are getting sick.


Some things to help you cope

It’s not always possible to avoid catching an illness, especially when you consider that some viruses and bacteria can survive for hours, if not days, on hard surfaces (it’s typically less on soft surfaces, but likely still present when a little one is sick).

However, you want to do what you can to prevent anyone else getting sick and to help your child feel as good as they can during their illness (while not letting them get away with murder). No doubt you already know most of these, but here are some tips to help you cope:

  • Wash your hands (and your children’s hands) with soap regularly, especially around toileting, sneezing, coughing or runny noses, and before handling food.
  • Keep your home clean and make all surfaces as hygienic as possible. For the first time ever I made use of detol spray and sprayed the bathroom and general surfaces regularly. It my have worked for me… (but I was obviously too late for everyone else).
  • Try and ensure family members are getting enough sleep.  It’s true that sleep patterns often go out the window when sick. It’s likely your child will be lethargic and may need extra naps in the day. They’re also likely to be up during the night too. (which means so are you). But try and allow anyone who’s not sick to get enough rest (your immune system kicks in during deep sleep and it will thank you for it).
  • Stick to your routines as much as you can. Although life will not go smoothly for a while, especially if your child is very sick, keeping the routines going as much as possible will help. Children thrive on routine. It helps them feel secure, and it’s comforting for them when they feel so miserable. Being sick is no reason to stop the routines.
  • Develop a strategy to deal with inappropriate behaviour. While remembering to be compassionate. This can mean giving your child a different way to express their negative feelings or behaviour (depending on their age). You can try saying “When you’re angry, I would like you to…”. In some situations, ignoring the behaviour may be the best strategy (too much attention can see negative behaviours increase, especially in toddlers).
  • Spend special time together. It helps to give your child some one-on-one calm time, so watch that movie and read those books together (especially if you haven’t had time for those things lately).
  • If a procedure or blood test is on the cards for toddlers or younger school children. Playing can be a great way to let your child express their feelings and thoughts. Your child may find needles less frightening if they can play with empty syringe first, for example.


Getting medical help

If you are ever in any doubt about your child’s health, seek help from a medical professional. It’s better to put your mind at ease than to be constantly worrying; however frustrating it is to hear that it’s a virus and to just ride it out, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In saying that, trust that Mum instinct. If your child is not getting better, or you feel that something has been missed, or not taken seriously – keep going back to the doctor.

I spent a couple of nights on the verge of going to A & E in the wee hours with Miss 6 (after visiting the GP). We didn’t end up going, but I got dressed in preparation a couple of times (that was a fun couple of nights). I’m fortunate to have a health background so I know where my limits are and what I’m on the look-out for (Miss 6 didn’t want to go to hospital, she’s had a few too many visits already; while Master 10 almost begged me to take him – that’s how bad it was).

If you’re not sure if you should seek help or who to contact in New Zealand, Kids health have some information HERE. 

Don’t be scared to make the call and seek help. Either to your GP or, if you’d like to check with a nurse first, Healthline is a great option in New Zealand. You can call free on  0800 611 116.


Getting emotional support

Calling on your village during time of illness can be a god-send. If you have friends or family you can call on to help, don’t hesitate to do so (thanks Mum).

Support crew is also another great tool to help you out. Support crew is a free online platform that co-ordinates meals and support for family and friends.


I’m hoping your family has gotten through winter unscathed this year. Making sure everyone is getting enough sleep can be a great way to ensure your families immune systems are up to the task of fighting off the nasty bugs out there. If you’d like some help with sleep, download my free tips for babies and toddlers, or book in a free call to see how I can help.


But if you have had a rough winter, did your child display sickness behaviour and changes in mood when ill? What have you noticed, and did anything in particular help you get through it?