My Child Vomits When Upset.

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

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Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

Hi Annie, My child vomits when upset. I have three children, ages eight, six, and two and a half, and one of them vomits when upset. On top of that, we are having a lot of issues with all 3 of them, but right now, my biggest issue is that I cannot get my 2 1/2-year-old daughter to stop breastfeeding, and that’s where the vomiting comes in.
She is 30+ pounds and looks more like a 3-year-old than a 2-year-old, so it’s not for nutritional value; I know it’s a comfort thing like a soother or bottle (two things she never took to either). I have tried weaning her off, but she starts freaking out to the point where she is throwing up and can’t breathe because she is so upset.

I don’t know how to break this habit, as she will still get up in the night to nurse. My husband works long and odd hours, so I feel this is up to me to handle.
Any tips?  Thanks, Crysta

Hi Crysta,

My child vomits when upsetThanks for writing to me, and I quite understand how worrying it is to have a child that vomits when upset. Long-term breastfeeding is fine as long as both parties want to do it, but it’s not much fun when one wants to stop! It’s also something I talk about often with regard to the other services I offer, but I’ll try the best I can to explain it here.

My child vomits when upset: Think of yourself as her de-facto soother.

You have rightly inferred that your daughter does not need to breastfeed from a nutritional standpoint, and you’ve also identified that she is doing this for comfort. I agree 100%, but I have one more observation. She’s also using you to comfort herself so she can go back to sleep either immediately or slightly later. That means sucking on you is what allows her to relax and fall asleep. You are, as you rightly point out, her de facto soother.

So how to stop? Right now, your daughter gets very upset to the point that she vomits and that tells me something. You see, children often vomit when they get very upset, but if it becomes a pattern, it’s because the child has learned that by doing it, a couple of rather interesting things happen. Let me tell you a hypothetical story about how these kinds of behaviours develop in a child around the same age as yours.

My child vomits when upset: How these behaviours start.

A little girl of two doesn’t want to go to sleep. She cries and cries, and finally, at one point, she vomits because she is so upset. The first thing she discovers is that Mom or Dad rushes in looking totally freaked. They rip the covers off and snuggle her, and they feel totally horrible for having created such a nasty mess and for having pushed their little girl to such an extreme reaction. In short, they feel guilty, and because they feel guilty, they spend lots of time cuddling their baby girl until she feels better. The little girl, for her part, feels warm and cuddled, and everyone is giving her tons of attention.

The second thing she notices is that while she was going to have to go to sleep on her own, that demand seems now to have miraculously disappeared. Instead, Mom and/or Dad are back in the room, comforting her and fiddling around in her room, changing the covers and making everything nice and cuddly again. Maybe they’ve even taken her back to their own bed. Still, something is a little odd, and the little girl quickly realizes that whatever it is she just did has changed things. Her parents look concerned, which feels weird to the little girl. They don’t know whether they should put her back in her bed or in theirs. Should they let her cry or not? The worry shows on their faces and in their physical reactions.

The little girl is programmed to look for confidence and leadership, so when mom places her back in the bed with trepidation and with hushed worried whispers to her partner, it feels horribly weird to her. It’s like they don’t know whether they want her to go to sleep. She feels their lack of confidence, and it makes her scared and so she clings to them, wanting more reassurance. As a result, mom and dad are likely to offer exactly that because they think that more comfort is what she’s looking for, but if they do, they misread her signals.

My child vomits when upset: She wants leadership.

So how does this apply to your situation? Well, I only know what you’ve told me, but I suspect something similar is going on. Your little girl wants comfort, and so in order to stop her freaking out, you keep giving it. The trouble is, that’s not really what she wants.

So what does she want? She wants what all children want. Leadership. She wants you to be the Captain of the ship and know intrinsically where you are going. She wants you to confidently tell her what is and is not appropriate and to follow through. To be her rock. The trouble is, you are sending her the opposite signals because she is running you rather than the other way around. She determines when she eats and even wakes you up to do it. If you want to get this behaviour to go, and I’m sure you do, understanding this fundamental fact is the only way out of this problem.

You must tell her calmly and kindly but firmly that enough is enough and that she must comply. Start with the nights, but prepare in advance with your husband because you won’t be getting much sleep. Make sure you can support each other and give each other rest time. Then make sure as well that your daughter is getting enough cuddles during the day (not feeding cuddles, but cuddles) to compensate for having to lose them at night. Put her to bed and follow a routine. Bath, teeth, stories, cuddle, lights out, and then leave. If she screams, go back every 5, 10, then 15 minutes. Stay calm. Tell her that you love her very much but that it’s time for bed. Be brief. If she vomits, stay very calm. Don’t give her any attention for having done it. Clean her up quietly and gently, and be sympathetic, but don’t lavish her with extra attention or hugs. Say it’s time for bed; clean the sheets and her, then replace her. Look as though you aren’t remotely bothered by her behaviour (tough, I know). Follow that regime all the way through the night, being totally consistent. Remember it is nighttime, so have a low, slow voice and be boring.

During the day, don’t let her breastfeed. By all means, cuddle and maybe read a book, but the moment she demands feeding and screams, turn your back and find something else to do. At the same time, try and notice the positive things she does, even if they’re momentary, like playing by herself for a moment. Notice her and give her positive feedback, a high five, etc. Do things with her and let her help you, and offer her lots of positive attention if she does. Offer her lots of water in between meals so you can be sure she’s hydrated. Then stick with it and be consistent. Don’t worry; she will get the message eventually. “My child vomits when upset” is an illustration of just how much this behaviour needs to change so you can all get the rest you need.

To get more of your parenting questions answered, please visit my parenting services page. 

Best of luck,


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