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Dos and Don'ts of Projectile Vomiting

Warning: this blog is not for the faint of stomach. But then, neither is much of parenthood.

This past weekend, we went away for a lovely church retreat. Bucolic hillsides, changing trees painted with oranges and scarlets, apple picking: all the earmarks of a lovely and peaceful family weekend.

And to be fair, the first day was great. Madeleine saw for the first time a wide expanse of green we call “grass” (remember – city kid) and, after her initial fear, took to it like cows to, well, grass. She’d climb up a gentle hill slope; run down it shrieking and screaming with glee while holding Daddy’s hands, feet barely touching the ground; rest a few minutes at the bottom, panting; then turn and trudge determinedly back up the hill. We walked near a small stream, we chalked outside with other kids, we did it all.

And then the nighttime came. 

I was lying drowsily in my bed when I heard what sounded like a cat bringing up a hairball and I thought sleepily, “Great. Kitty’s coughing one up.” Then I remembered that our cat was not with us, and realized it was the sound of my child vomiting.

Not to brag but simply to state a fact, my daughter is almost 16 months old and she’s never vomited. This means there were three people in that room for whom projectile vomiting was a new experience, and none of us really enjoyed it. After staring at each other uncertainly through her pack-n-play for a brief moment, frozen with apprehension, Maddie began to wail – clearly frightened by what just came out of her mouth – and I went into Mommy mode. I accepted the fact that this was going to be nasty and dove in.

One putrid, vivid, and best-forgotten hour later, and we were no longer a member of the uninitiated. Madeleine seems fully recovered –with no other symptoms, we’re guessing she picked up a contraband piece of grass or something and sneaked it into her mouth – but Brian and I are going through a little Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and hope it’s a scene that won’t be repeated soon.

But since we’re now on the other side, I thought I’d submit a list of a few Dos and Don’ts for those of you still not yet broken in – may it ease your transition.

ALWAYS HAVE MULTIPLE LOVEYS. Living close to her heart, Silky was one of the first fatalities. Fortunately, I make it a policy to never be gone for an overnight without Backup Silky hidden somewhere. Since Silky was the only thing that calmed her down even a little bit, this was a Very Good Thing. The downside was that Silky Two now became irreplaceable, Silky One being washed as best possible and left on the radiator to dry as quickly as it could, meaning that every time Maddie seemed about to hurl again Silky Two was frantically ripped from her, which certainly didn’t help the crying situation. I’d brought it fearing an MIA situation, never dreaming we’d need it as a replacement troop.

ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH MULTIPLE CRIB SHEETS. Unfortunately, we didn’t follow this rule. Since Madeleine’s never had more than a cold, never needed a middle-of-the-night sheet change, I smugly decided to save on packing and leave the spares at home. Not only that, but I didn’t even bring the waterproof crib sheet. What did this mean? It meant that when it was all over, our one sheet was hanging over the shower after hand-washing (yuck!), and Maddie was sleeping in just a diaper (no spare sleepers either, hello!), with only a small towel separating her from the naked (and wet) bottom of the pack and play.

Oh yes, and only a towel covering her as a blanket, because she hurled on her blanket as well.

ONLY TRAVEL TO PLACES WITH A WASHER/DRYER OR SPARE LAUNDRY ON REQUEST. I know, there’s not much you can do about this one. Our religious retreat space, while lovely, had no access to a washer/dryer, nor was there any “front desk” to request more towels. Our sole weapons that night were two small towel sets, one extra towel, and the bath mat. I’ve never had to ration such clean-up tools before, and believe me it was no fun, especially after setting aside two clean towels for her crib. Had we been at home, we could have changed her sheets, her sleeper, our night clothes, and so on. As it was, we were stuck with a very ripe-smelling bathroom and wet spot on the bedroom floor for the rest of the stay. And unpacking a suitcase full of vomit-coated (though rinsed) clothing when we got home was no picnic either.

WHEN THE ACTION STARTS, THINK FAST AND SAVE THE GENERALS RATHER THAN THE PRIVATES. You’ve got mere seconds before the entire crib’s a washout (literally), so think strategically. It was more important to save her stuffed animals (no replacements on hand) than her blanket (see towel story above).

THROW YOURSELF IN THE LINE OF FIRE. IT’S FASTER. The next morning we were telling a friend of ours about our night and he said, “And then you hit that point where it’s all about triage. You realize it’s better to step in front of the projectile vomiting and take a hit than to jump aside, which is your natural inclination. After all, it’s easier for you to jump in the shower to wash off than it is to change the sheets for the 8th time.”

How right he was.

DON’T BE TOO HASTY TO RE-SET. After round one, we foolishly cleaned ourselves up and put on fresh pj’s. I started rocking Maddie, lulling her to sleep, calming her down. Imagine my surprise when she went into Act 2 of her Linda Blair impersonation. By the end of the Vomit Fest, we were standing around in our undies. We’d packed light, after all, and needed something clean to wear home.

REALIZE YOU CANNOT FIX THIS. Is there anything worse than your child’s uncontrollable, unstoppable crying? She cried for a solid hour, in between bouts of throwing up. I tried nursing her, which would work for a few minutes, humming, everything. The best thing I could give her was myself, and snuggling up with both of us pretty much naked was all the comfort I had to offer her. Know your child’s going to look at you with that “Please fix this” look, and you won’t be able to.

LEARN THE WARNING SOUND. Maddie makes this little, kitten-like cough, followed by what honestly sounds like a cat working on a hairball, before her little tummy tenses and she goes for the spittoon long-distance record. We learned to recognize that, and could run her over to the sink before she lost it. After she went to bed, Brian and I lay tensely awake the rest of the night; any time she made a sound approaching that little number, I’d jump up and whisk Silky away from her (see Lesson One), causing a small round of crying. She never did throw up again after going back to bed, but you can’t say we weren’t ready.

GO EASY ON THE LIQUIDS THE NEXT DAY. Eight hours after a fitful night of whimpering and tossing but no more throwup rounds, Maddie stood up in her crib and began crying for something to drink. I gave her a water bottle and she quickly guzzled almost eight ounces. As I was watching her do this, I remember thinking, “Didn’t Abby tell me a story about puking and drinking a lot of water? Oh well, I’m sure it will come to me.”

It did, twenty minutes later, when my smiling girl looked startled and spewed the entire bottle – plus interest – back out on the carpet.

We knew she wasn’t still sick – she hadn’t thrown up the rest of the night. Her stomach was simply not ready for that much load. Lesson learned? When introducing liquids back in, go slowly, a couple ounces at a time.

So there you are. We made it back home without further incident, the water-puking being an apparent reaction to an empty stomach and not a signal for Round Two: Daytime Puking. We know we were lucky – we were able to give her a bit of food throughout the day, little sips of water and soy milk, and she never threw up in during the two-hour car ride. She also never demanded more drink than she should have (after the first time), or tried to eat more than would be good for her. And after a day of applesauce and waffles, she seems back on track and raring to go. She also didn’t seem fazed by the smell of vomit clinging to her still-unwashed hair for several hours, though Mommy certainly was.

I’m sure some of you have additional insight into this little parental activity, and I welcome it. Hopefully, it’s a sport we won’t be jumping back into any time soon, but I’d love to hear any other tricks you might have. 


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