I will never forget a kid in my preschool class that would cry so hard he'd throw up whenever his mom would leave him. I always felt awful for him, and as a parent, I worried my kid would do this. So far, so good, but why do toddlers cry until they throw up? Is it a coping mechanism, do they do it for attention, or do they really just make themselves sick? What about when it comes to sleep learning/training — the dreaded argument that comes up in every mom group on Facebook?
First of all, there are usually two reasons toddlers cry until they throw up, according to Dr. Gina Posner, pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “One is that they cry so hard that they trigger their gag reflex and vomit. Others just cry and take in so much air that they get a stomach upset and vomit,” she says. “It is not always a way to try to get what they want, but frequently the parents will give in to a child that does tend to make themselves throw up, so then they get their way even more.”
And then Posner adds that some kids just have a really sensitive gag reflex.
Dr. Jacqueline Jones, pediatrician and ENT specialist, says that some toddlers tend to cry until they throw up because they can’t regulate their big emotions yet. But there are ways to help them self-regulate. “To help your child self-regulate during these episodes, practice keeping calm yourself and helping your child to not overreact,” she tells Romper. “It is also bad policy to give into demands when a child is acting out. Helping them to realize boundaries and to come to terms with their emotions will, in the long run, make them more self-reliant.”
Other ways to help your toddler through this is to reaffirm with them that everything is going to be OK, but “they need to get calm and see if we can find a way to work through the problem together, which is healthy for your child’s emotional growth,” according to Jones. “If your child can be safely held, holding them in a hug and letting them know you love them may help,” she adds.
As for the dreaded sleep learning topic, is it OK to let your child cry it out, even if they throw up?
Jones says, “If your child vomits at bedtime, put a towel down so that you are not changing the entire bed, but do not give into demands for not adhering to a sleep schedule. An overtired child will have more problems self-regulating.” And bonus, there's no psychological damage to your child by helping them set boundaries and deal with their emotions.
"As long as it is done from a place of love and support," Posner says. But she does suggest keeping an eye on your toddler through a baby monitor to make sure they aren't choking on anything they puke up.
Just remember, “Most toddlers will give warning signs that the situation is escalating before vomiting. Try to diffuse the situation and help your toddler to move onto something else. Toddlers have short attention spans and usually can be distracted,” according to Jones.
But Jones warns that if your toddler is given too much power, that can be scary, too. “They want to know that someone other than them is in charge and that the adults will create a safe space for them. It also fosters the impression in a young child that bad behavior will get them what they want." It may be hard to watch your toddler be unhappy and throw a fit, but if they're losing it because they're upset about boundaries, it's best to stay the course and be calm, loving, and patient.
Dr. Gina Posner, pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California
Dr. Jacqueline Jones, pediatrician, ENT specialist, head and neck surgeon, and author of “Medical Parenting: How to Navigate Health, Wellness & The Medical System with Your Child”
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