Importance of Hydration in Kids
Amid all of the barbecues, campouts, beach days and other assorted summer fanfare there’s one incredibly easy way to keep your family healthy: make sure they stay hydrated.
As simple as it sounds to drink the recommended eight glasses of water each day – or more if you’ve been out in the hot sun – it can just as easily be forgotten as both kids and grown-ups grab sugary beverages out of a cooler to pair with their hot dogs and burgers at a cookout. A juice box may appease children’s palates, but it won’t provide them with the hydration they need to keep up with their body’s demands.
“Proper hydration plays a very important role in helping regulate many body functions,” says Michael Ma, M.D., a pediatrician at Centre Pediatric Associates in Brookline. “Keeping well hydrated helps the body regulate its temperature. In warm weather and during exercise, the body produces sweat to help stay cool. Without adequate hydration, the body’s ability to stay cool is hindered, which can lead to heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.”
But H2O’s benefits do far more than simply prevent illnesses resulting from high temperatures. Keeping your body hydrated helps kidneys remove harmful by-products of normal body function and keeps your concentration on point.
Spotting Dehydration in Kids
Chances are your child isn’t going to stop her play to tell you she’s thirsty, particularly if she’s enjoying a free-spirited day at the pool or beach with friends. This is where your parental intuition needs to kick in; just as much as you may nag her about reapplying sunblock, you need to nag even more about drinking enough water.
“The effects of inadequate hydration range from mild to severe,” explains Ma. “Dehydration can lead to dizziness, muscle aches, fatigue or lethargy, and headache. Dehydration can also worsen constipation and increase the severity of headaches and migraines. In some cases, inadequate hydration in addition to extreme heat or physical exertion can lead to fainting or syncope, a form of muscle breakdown with severe muscle pain called rhabdomyolysis, kidney injury, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”
While your kiddo may think there is no fate worse than having to stop and chug some water or, heaven forbid, get out of the pool to use the restroom, having to head home because of heat stroke would definitely qualify.
If despite your best efforts a child doesn’t seem to be drinking enough water, there are fairly clear symptoms you can look out for to tell if he is dehydrated. For starters, kids should urinate at least once every six hours. If you haven’t been asked to hustle your child to the bathroom or your baby or toddler hasn’t had a wet diaper for more than four to six hours, this could be the issue.
Physically, parents might notice their child with a dry mouth, cracked lips and dry skin. Other symptoms can include a rapid heart rate, faint pulse, headache, dizziness and muscle aches.
“Counterintuitively, children who are severely dehydrated may have decreased thirst or appetite,” says Ma. “Signs of severe dehydration include excessive fatigue, lethargy, somnolence, passing out or losing consciousness, or a change in your child’s normal behavior such as difficulty concentrating or difficulty answering questions.”
Checking your kiddo’s urine may be one of the least glamorous aspects of parenting, but it is a good indicator of whether or not he is hydrated enough. It should be clear and there should be plenty of it.
How to Handle Dehydration
Naturally, the best way to handle dehydration is to avoid it entirely. If kids are outside for extended periods of time or engaging in sports and other types of physical activity, up their water intake.
Ma suggests that children tote a water bottle with them during the school day, at camp or in daycare, refilling it about three or four times daily. He also notes a diet filled with fruits and vegetables helps rehydrate the body while replacing salt lost through sweat.
“If you suspect that your child is mildly dehydrated, giving fluids with a small amount of sugar and electrolytes, such as diluted juice or Pedialyte, can help replace the salt and sugar lost through sweat,” says Ma. “Avoid drinks with excessive sugar or caffeine, such as soda and energy drinks, which can worsen dehydration.”
Often mild cases of dehydration can be treated at home with the proper fluids, but if you find your child’s symptoms are severe, call your pediatrician or head to the emergency room.
Risks Throughout the Year
Summer may be the most obvious time for kids to be at risk for dehydration, but athletes are susceptible throughout the year as they are constantly physically active and often practicing or playing outside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends coaches schedule workouts and practices either early or late in the day when the temperature isn’t at its daily peak. They also recommend pacing activity, gradually working toward the more intensive part of a practice.
If your child plays sports and complains of muscle cramping during practice or a game, it could be the first sign of dehydration. Encourage her to drink more water and remind her not to wait until she feels thirsty.
According to the CDC, football players ranked high for heat illnesses among high school athletes, with most occurring during practices. As Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor would say: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” But we have a feeling he’d add in a full water bottle, too, if it sounded more poetic.