Believe it or not, most of the human body is made up of water. This is especially true in babies and young children. Water is essential for our bodies to function normally. So if the body loses too much water, the body begins to not work as it should. This is called dehydration.
Dehydration can cause your child to not feel well and can actually be quite dangerous. So it is important to know risks of dehydration and how to prevent it. It is also important to know signs of dehydration, how to treat mild dehydration and when to seek medical advice.
Dehydration is caused by not eating and drinking enough to keep the water level in the body normal, or by losing too much water from the body.
Feeling bad, whether from an upset stomach, illness or infection, is the most common reason for children to not eat or drink enough. The most common way excessive water is lost from the body is from diarrhea, which is common in childhood infections. Other ways a child can lose an excessive amount of water include fever, sweating or vomiting. Often, it is a combination of these problems that causes the dehydration.
All people can become dehydrated, but babies and young children are at greater risk. Whenever your child is ill, be sure he is taking an adequate amount of healthy fluids. Also be aware if your child is losing excessive amounts of fluid. Call your child’s doctor if you notice any of these signs that your child may be dehydrated:
- Urinating less than normal (or less than 6 times per day).
- Dry mouth and lips.
- Not making tears when crying.
- Acting lethargic, having poor activity or not acting like himself.
Here are some tips to help if your child has dehydration or has risk factors for dehydration:
- If you child is dehydrated, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter oral rehydration solution. These solutions have just the right balance of fluid, salt and sugar for your child’s body. This balance is important to get back the hydration status back to normal. To use oral rehydration solution, give small amounts of fluid every few minutes as opposed to a lot of fluid at once. This technique is almost always effective if the dehydration is not severe. Giving lots of fluid at once tends to cause vomiting in a child who is not feeling well. You can give up to 5 mL (which is a teaspoon) every 2–3 minutes. For smaller children, give a bit less (e.g., 2–3 mL). Talk to your doctor about how much and how often to give the solution, which will depend on your child’s age and weight. The fluid can be given by a spoon or syringe. You can continue to give these small amounts over about 3–4 hours, to get the total amount of fluid back up to the normal amount. If your child vomits, try decreasing the amount given each time. Notify your doctor if your child will not take the solution with this technique. Keep in mind, if your child is breastfeeding, breastfeeding can continue as well.
- Avoid only giving regular fluids such as water, juice or soup, which do not have the correct balance of fluid, salt and sugar. These fluids will not hydrate your child as well and can cause other problems.
- Avoid giving sugary drinks, such as soda, juice or sports drinks. Sugary drinks can cause diarrhea, making dehydration even worse.
- Vomiting and diarrhea are among the most common causes of dehydration in children. If your child has these problems but is not dehydrated, you can continue to breastfeed or feed him his regular, healthy diet. Foods high in sugar and fat are usually not as well tolerated as healthy foods, such as healthy grains, lean meats and vegetables. Restricting healthy foods is not necessary and no longer recommended.
- Don’t forget: Food has water in it. Sometimes parents worry that as a child is getting better, he may start eating but may not be drinking as much as the parent would like. Your child getting back to his normal self and starting to eat his normal, healthy diet are signs that his health is improving. If you child seems to be back to normal, you can allow his diet to be back to its normal as well.
Be alert to the signs of dehydration, especially when your child is ill. It is a very common problem with children, but can be quite serious if not treated appropriately. So always keep your doctor informed when you are concerned that your child is ill or dehydrated.
Author Laura Lawler, M.D., FAAP, is chief of Pediatric Hospitalists at Christiana Care.