While staying healthy, keeping your job, and maintaining your sanity in the process. 

By Elizabeth Jenkins
Updated December 08, 2017
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Illustration: Sick kid in bed with iPad, parents in hazmat suits taking care of him
Credit: Dermot Flynn

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Illustration: Sick kid in bed with iPad, parents in hazmat suits taking care of him
Credit: Dermot Flynn

1 Contain the Germs

Since 80 percent of infections are passed through direct and indirect contact (getting sneezed on, sharing utensils, even cuddling), this is the perfect time to get in touch with your inner clean freak.

With all the bodily functions going on in there, the bathroom can be ground zero for germs. If possible, give your sick child her own designated bathroom for the duration of her illness, especially if there’s vomiting or diarrhea involved, suggests Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine. If you have to share, wipe the toilet seat, flusher, and faucet with disinfectant wipes after each use, he advises. Melissa Slawsky, a mom in Orlando, Florida, keeps her sick kid from passing germs around the family by replacing hand towels with a roll of disposable paper towels.

Germs can also spread when you pick up those used tissues that inevitably pile up all over the house. One mom’s clever solution: “My kids carry their own tissue box around, as well as a plastic baggie so they can dispose of their used tissues,” says Fairuz Abdullah, a mother of twins in San Francisco.

The importance of handwashing can’t be overstated. “It’s not a guarantee you won’t get sick, but it’s the best and simplest way to help prevent germs from getting on—and into—you,” says Claire McCarthy, MD, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. Make sure everyone washes their hands after using the bathroom, before eating and drinking, and before touching their face, says Tierno. (Try the Honest Company’s Foaming Hand Soap in kid-fave Coastal Surf scent; company founder Jessica Alba says she keeps it in her daughters’ bathroom to encourage frequent hand washing.)

Use sanitizing wipes on anything that’s handled by multiple people, including the phone, TV remote, and doorknob. “Common colds can spread through germs on these surfaces,” explains Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Take your child to the pediatrician while his sibs are in school, even if the timing means your regular doc isn’t available. That way the kids won’t have to ride in the car together, and you won’t expose your healthy children to other germs at the doctor’s office.

To comfort your child, “do an air-kiss or high five without touching,” suggests McCarthy. “When you’re snuggling on the couch, put a giant stuffed animal or two between you.” If you can’t resist a kiss, skip the cheek and go for the top of the head—it’s less likely to spread germs.

2 Rally Your Team

As soon as you know your kid is down for the count, huddle with your partner if you have one. Can one of you work from home today, or can you both shuffle your schedules so one takes the morning off and the other takes the afternoon? Are there any meetings, volunteer commitments, or appointments you can cancel? If you’re staying home, call or email your boss with a detailed plan. “Let her know how long you expect to be out, what you can do from home, and who in the office can best handle anything that needs to be covered in your absence,” advises Lucia Gilbert, PhD, professor emerita of psychology at Santa Clara University.

If staying home isn’t an option, go down your list of friends, family, or sitters you can call on in a pinch. Need to update that list? Spend your day at home checking out online sitter-matching services, such as eNannySource.com, SitterCity.com, or Care.com, which, for a fee, can connect you with a local Mary Poppins.

Call in favors from other parents. While you’re home with your convalescing child, your other kids still need to get to their soccer games and dance lessons. “I always squash my independent spirit and ask for help when one of the kids is sick,” says Supna Shah, a mother of triplets in Tampa, Florida. She keeps a call list ready so she can ask another parent to chauffeur her healthy kids to activities.

Outsource errands. There’s always going to be a prescription or groceries you need to pick up, but taking a sick kid out, unless it’s to go to the doctor, is never a great idea, says McCarthy. Ask a friend to help or splurge for delivery. (GetMyRx.com delivers prescriptions from independent pharmacies in 35 states.)

3 Keep Your Kid Interested and Entertained

When your child is ill, it’s fine to ignore recommendations about limiting screen time. “While we want to instill good digital habits, there are only so many things to feel guilty about,” says Swanson. “Letting your child rest and be distracted from their illness seems reasonable.”

If you need to make a work call, save screen time for that part of the day. If you need more time than a nap or a viewing of Moana allows, set up a work space separate from the recovery room and tell your child that you’ll check in every 30 minutes but that it would be so helpful for Mommy if he called for you only if he felt truly awful. “I fill the kids’ room with so many movies, books, and drinks that they never want to leave!” says Melanie Ulle, a mother of two in Denver.

When your kid gets tired of back-to-back episodes of SpongeBob, he’s going to want some entertainment, but playing Go Fish or Monopoly means sharing cards, dice, and, yes, germs, so have a roster of “no-touch” activities ready to go. “I pull out a craft my kids don’t do very often so it will keep their attention,” says Jean Brillman, a mother of two in Philadelphia whose sick-day kit includes pipe cleaners and beads. “I set them up on the sofa with a tray where they can do their activity while resting, and there’s minimal sharing involved.” Other favorite activities that don’t involve swapping germs or expending too much energy: playing I Spy, sorting through old art projects to create a book (check plumprint.com for ideas), and tuning in to audiobooks (listening to Jim Dale narrate the Harry Potter series will make any kid feel magically better).

Provide healthy yet easy-on-the-tummy snacks, such as smoothies and oatmeal. “Our favorite is a piece of toast with sliced bananas cut into quarters, a scoop of peanut butter, and a spoonful of honey,” says Karen Smoots, a mom of two in Portage, Michigan.

4 Manage The Aftermath

Despite all your efforts, you may very well spend the next few days fighting off whatever your child passed on to you. Give yourself a few days to recover. “I divide my life into segments—me, my partner, my kids, my job, and my housework—and make decisions on what’s a crucial task and what can wait,” says Eirene Heidelberger, founder and president of GITMom, a parenting-coaching company. “Vacuuming can wait. Long-term projects can wait.”

Deep-clean your house after everyone heals. Don’t forget to scrub the toilets, replace the sick person’s toothbrush, strip the beds, and throw all sheets, blankets, pajamas, towels, and stuffed animals into the wash.

When you’ve had a few days to get everyone back on their regular schedule, think about what you can do to make the next sick day go more smoothly. If you had a child-care emergency, interview sitters. Work glitch? Talk to tech support about the best way to log in from home. Stock your freezer with the foods your feverish kids craved.

Breathe. Sick days happen. And they may give you the gift of uninterrupted bonding time you rarely get to enjoy on your healthier—but much busier—days.