Nutrition for Children with Cancer

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How your child can take in nutrients

There are many ways to help your child get the nutrients she needs. The most common are:

By mouth

If at all possible, your child should get needed nutrients from eating and drinking nutrient-rich foods and fluids that are part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Try to stick to your normal family mealtime habits as much as you can. Regular healthy snacks can be helpful, too.

If needed, your child may be able to get extra nutrients by eating high-calorie, high-protein meals supplemented with snacks, and homemade drinks and shakes. But talk to your health care team before making diet changes like these. Liquid nutrition products you can buy at the grocery store or pharmacy are also options if she has trouble eating. There are many different types on the market and it is best to discuss them with your doctor first. Clinics often have samples your child could try before you buy any.

Taking in enough nutrients is not just about managing weight loss; it’s also part of giving your child the chance for the best possible treatment outcome. If it gets too hard for your child to maintain or gain weight by eating and drinking, or if her calorie and nutrients needs have greatly increased, a feeding tube may be needed.

By feeding tube

Tube feedings are given by threading a thin, flexible tube through the nose and into the stomach. The tube can be passed further along into the small intestine if your child is having trouble with nausea or vomiting. Once the tube is in place, complete liquid nutrition formulas can be given through it. Most of the time, these feedings can give your child all of the calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals needed.

Tube feedings can be given at home, with the help of family, friends, or caregivers. Your health care team will teach you how to do this. Once tube feedings begin, your child will usually feel better because his nutritional needs are being met.

Children who have feeding tubes usually can still eat. The tubes are very small and will not keep your child from swallowing. If your child needs a feeding tube, every effort will be made to allow him to take food by mouth, too. For example, he may be tube fed at night to allow him to eat during the day. Even if your child isn’t eating, it’s important to keep his mouth clean through regular rinsing and brushing.

Most young children get used to tube feedings within a few days, but older kids and teens may need longer. Talking with a peer who has had a feeding tube may help the older child who is having a hard time adjusting to the tube. Parents also benefit from talking with other parents who have dealt with feeding tubes. They often have fears or concerns about the way the tube works or looks. Children should be involved as much as possible in the decision to use a feeding tube.

Tube feedings are most often used to boost weight in children with poor appetites, but they may also be used in youngsters who cannot eat or drink. Talk to your health care team about your child’s eating habits if you notice any changes. Ask about signs of problems you should watch for, and things you can do to help your child get the most from what he can eat.

A more long-term type of tube can be put through the skin of the belly (abdomen) right into the stomach (a gastrostomy or g-tube) or the intestines (a jejunostomy or j-tube). This surgery can usually be done in an outpatient setting.

Tube feeding does not come without problems. Talk to your health care team to fully understand the likely benefits and possible issues for your child.

By vein

Sometimes tube feedings are not able to give all the fluids and nutrients a child needs. In these cases, nutrient solutions can be given right into a vein. This is called intravenous nutrition or parenteral nutrition (PN). PN is most often used when the stomach and intestines are not working properly.

PN solutions can usually meet all of a child’s nutritional needs for a time. Like tube feedings, PN can be given at home. Short-term use of PN is a safe way to support your child until the stomach or intestine is better. Once these issues go away every effort should be made to switch to tube or mouth feedings because PN is not as good for the body as eating or tube feeding. It can also be hard on the liver.


Last Medical Review: 06/30/2014
Last Revised: 06/30/2014