Dehydration occurs when there is insufficient water in the body. Children’s bodies have a higher water percentage than adults, their metabolic rates are higher and they are at a greater risk of infections that cause vomiting and diarrhoea, which makes them particularly vulnerable to dehydration. They also don’t have the same reserves that an older child or adult has when they lose fluids.
Know the signs
In infants, dehydration can develop quickly and even become life threatening if not treated properly. Registered paediatric dietician and founder of Nutrition4KIDS Bridget Surtees says that as a parent, it’s important to learn to recognise the following signs of dehydration:
- Mild dehydration: Fewer wet nappies (babies should have at least five or six wet nappies in a 24-hour period) and slightly dry lips.
- Moderate dehydration: Dry lips, low blood pressure, increased heart rate, dark strong-smelling urine, irritability, inactivity and fewer wet nappies.
- Severe dehydration: Weight loss, cold hands and feet, no urine, rapid breathing, blotchy skin and becoming unconscious. If you think your baby shows signs of serious dehydration, take him to the hospital immediately. He may need to receive liquids through an intravenous (IV) tube until he’s rehydrated.
Be aware of symptoms of dehydration under these circumstances:
- Fever. When your baby has a fever, he sweats and water evaporates from his skin as his body tries to cool down. He may also be breathing faster than normal and losing more fluid through exhalation.
- Overheating. Your baby can easily sweat and lose fluids from being in the sun or being active on a hot day. He can also overheat and sweat from sitting in a stuffy, hot room or because he’s wearing too many layers.
- Diarrhoea and vomiting. If your baby has a stomach virus, such as gastroenteritis, he will lose fluids through diarrhoea and vomiting. Your baby can’t absorb fluids from his bowels if he has diarrhoea, or keep liquids down if he’s vomiting, which means he can dehydrate quickly.
- Vomiting Viruses and intestinal infections can lead to vomiting. If your baby is having trouble keeping liquids down, he can easily become dehydrated.
Give enough fluids
Bridget says that babies under the age of six months should be breastfed on demand, and according to guidelines if being formula fed. “This should give your baby adequate fluids to keep him hydrated − even in hot climates. Babies under six months of age don’t require water. Milk is enough,” she adds. She further explains that, on average, babies between the ages of seven and 12 months should have a water intake of approximate 0.8ℓ per day. After 12 months, they can be given water as a drink in-between meals and in addition to milk.
What about water and juice?
The World Health Organisation recommends that parents do not to give water to babies under six months of age as it can interfere with their ability to absorb nutrients from milk. Breastmilk is more than 80% water, especially the first milk that comes with each feed. This will satisfy your baby’s thirst, continue to protect him from infections, and help him to continue to grow well.
Paediatric dietician Kath Megaw writes in her book Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children that fruit juice is not a fruit substitute. It’s a sugary cool drink and it’s unhealthy for babies and young children. Bridget agrees: “Excessive fruit juice consumption can risk the displacement of breastmilk or infant formula in the infant’s diet. Juices are associated with early childhood tooth decay, malnutrition, gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhoea, flatulence, abdominal distension) and decreased calcium density in the diet.”
Kath writes that parents should avoid giving young children juices and flavoured milk in favour of water. “Give them water with their meals. Buy novelty ice-cube trays and put sliced lemon, mint or strawberries into their water. Offer your child more water when it’s hot in order to avoid dehydration,” she writes.
There are three important steps to preventing dehydration:
- Maintain a good hydration routine for your child by making sure she is getting enough fluids.
- Learn how to ‘read’ your child’s urine for signs of dehydration. Darker, yellow urine is typically a sign of dehydration.
- Recognise situations when your child may need more fluids than usual.