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Spotting the signs of dehydration in toddlers and how to prevent it

Here comes the sun! And don’t we love it? It’s the chance to shed our wintery togs, feel the grass between our toes and make ourselves some vitamin D. Sea, sunblock and salads – it’s all good news, but while you’re all out and about, loving the heat, just remember to keep one sun-glassed eye on whether your toddler is taking enough water on board.

In relation to their size, small children have greater fluid needs than adults and are less heat tolerant, so in the summer, when they are outside more and maybe even playing sports in the heat, the risk of dehydration is high. What's clear is that toddlers should be getting between 6 and 8 drinks per day but may need even more in very hot weather and if extra active.

As far as babies are concerned, a breast-fed baby usually doesn't need to have water as well; breastmilk is approximately 88% water and will quench your baby's thirst; just make sure they have plenty of extra feeds in hot weather. Formula-fed babies can be given sips of cooled, boiled water from 6 months of age and in hot weather – no more than 2-3 ounces a day or it can be very dangerous, especially for children in the first 9 months of life. It's also important not to displace any intake of milk with water.

Dehydration can have a variety of effects on children, among them tiredness, poor concentration, irritability and headaches. More seriously, it can cause rapid breathing and a speedy heart rate, and spark spates of dizziness, even fainting. However, children may not be able to recognise or articulate the early warning signs such as thirst, which is why looking out for symptoms is so very important. Indeed, even if a young child can recognise that they’re thirsty and appears to have quenched their thirst with a lengthy drink, they still can be fundamentally dehydrated.

So, monitoring your child’s hydration level is key

First stop, check the colour of your child’s urine: it should be a pale straw colour – any darker and your child should be encouraged to drink more. Secondly, keep tabs on the number of wet nappies each day: between 6 and 8 wet nappies a day is about right – if the number is less than usual, this could be a sign of dehydration. Thirdly, dehydration can contribute to constipation: your child may have hard, difficult-to-pass stools and be in discomfort; they may even have gone off their food. Lastly, changes in appearance: a dry, sticky mouth; eyes that look slightly sunken in their head; there may be very few or no tears when your child cries.

If a child is dehydrated, over sleepy and difficult to wake, it is time to get medical help urgently, but the good news is that most symptoms can quickly be addressed and be avoided in the first place if children drink regularly and sufficiently. The trouble is, getting a child to take a drink is sometimes easier said than done.

Here are a few thoughts on how to tempt the most reluctant drinkers…

  1. leave beakers of fresh water around the house for a child to pick up whenever they fancy a drink. Adding ice to water can make children more inclined to drink it.

  2. make drinking fun by buying everyone in your house their own individually coloured recyclable water bottle.

  3. make drinking time sociable, like “having a cup of tea.”

  4. add fruit to a beaker of water or to water in ice cube trays to freeze. The fruit will add different flavours.

  5. make home-made lollies from blended fruit and milk, or from fresh fruit juice and water.

  6. the most hydrating fruits and vegetables include watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches, cucumber, celery, lettuce, courgettes and radishes. Eating them directly is perfect but fruit and veggie smoothies are a great way to add extra nutrients whilst being very hydrating too. The leftovers can be turned into lollies!

  7. don’t buy the bad stuff: fizzy drinks just dissolve teeth enamel and are usually full of sugar; fruit juices should be limited to meal times and ought to be well diluted – one part fruit juice to ten parts water; tea and coffee are not suitable for toddlers.

  8. milk is hydrating but toddlers over the age of 1 should be limited to three milk drinks a day. From the age of 1, toddlers should drink from a beaker not a bottle, to avoid having an impact on teeth and speech development.

Have a happy summer!

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