Baby drinking water

As a parent, you want to do everything possible to keep your baby healthy. Even so, babies and young children do get sick from time to time, and with certain symptoms of illness like fever or vomiting, there's a chance that your baby or toddler can get dehydrated.

It’s important to try to keep your baby from getting dehydrated, so read on to find out more about what exactly dehydration is, what can cause it, how you can prevent it, and what to do if your baby does become dehydrated.

What Is Dehydration?

Our bodies need water and other fluids to function properly—that goes for babies, children, and adults, too. Over the course of a day, it’s normal for your baby to lose and replenish water. When he sweats, cries, pees, or poops, he loses water, and when he feeds, eats, or drinks, he replenishes it.

Dehydration can occur when your baby or toddler loses a significant amount of body water. When the fluids aren't immediately replaced, this can lead to a number of serious conditions, including

  • heatstroke

  • seizures

  • kidney failure

  • loss of consciousness

  • a drop in oxygen levels.

Signs of Dehydration

The signs of dehydration you might see in your baby or toddler depend on the level of dehydration he might have.

Signs of Mild to Moderate Dehydration

Signs of mild to moderate dehydration include if your child:

  • Plays less than what's typical for him

  • Has a dry mouth

  • Pees less frequently (in toddlers) or has fewer than six wet diapers in a day (in babies)

  • Cries fewer tears

  • Has sunken eyes

  • Has sunken fontanelles (the soft spots on your baby's head)

  • Has looser stools if the dehydration is caused by diarrhea, or fewer stools if the dehydration is caused by vomiting or drinking less fluid.

If your baby shows any of the above signs, call his healthcare provider immediately. She can give you instructions as to what can help treat the dehydration, such as a store-bought electrolyte solution.

Signs of Severe Dehydration

Signs of severe dehydration include:

  • Fussiness

  • Excessive sleepiness

  • Sunken eyes

  • Cold and discolored hands and feet

  • Wrinkly skin

  • Does not have a wet diaper in an 8-hour period (in babies); does not pee in a 10-hour period (in toddlers).

If you think your baby may be severely dehydrated, take him to the emergency room. Your baby may need to be rehydrated intravenously and this requires hospitalization.

Treatment

The goal in treating your child's mild to moderate dehydration at home is to rehydrate her right away by replenishing the fluids that she has lost. Always check in with your child's healthcare provider if you have any questions about appropriate home treatment.

For Infants and Young Babies

If your baby is breastfeeding, continue to nurse her in order to rehydrate her, unless she is vomiting. If that's the case, hold off on breastfeeding. Your provider will likely recommend that you give your baby a commercially available electrolyte solution in between the feedings, and will tell you how much and how often to offer this.

If you're feeding your baby with formula, you'll want to stop and simply rehydrate her with only the electrolyte solution until she is able to hold her fluids. Afterward you can go back to formula-feeding. Don't water down the formula.

It's important to note that it's not safe to give water to babies under 6 months old so don't treat the dehydration with water.

For Older Babies and Toddlers

Check with your child's healthcare provider, who may recommend using a readily available store-bought electrolyte solution manufactured for babies and toddlers.

Follow the provider's instructions on dosage. These solutions are usually given in small, frequent doses.

Some things that you shouldn't give your older baby or toddler when she is dehydrated include:

  • Water

  • Soda, including ginger ale

  • Tea

  • Fruit juices

  • Gelatin desserts

  • Chicken broth.

These items do not offer the necessary sugars and salts that your child needs. And, if your child is dehydrated due to diarrhea, these items can make it worse.

Causes of Dehydration

Dehydration often occurs when children have diarrhea, vomiting, or a fever.

Diarrhea

An occasional loose stool is nothing to be worried about, but sometimes your baby or toddler may get diarrhea due to common viral illnesses such as the flu. When diarrhea strikes, important minerals and salts are also lost along with the water through your child's stools, and this can lead to dehydration.

If your baby or toddler has watery stools every few hours, call her healthcare provider as soon as you can. She may have you hold back from giving your child any solid foods for 24 hours, and have you instead give a store-bought electrolyte solution.

Vomiting

Many illnesses, including the stomach flu, can cause vomiting, which in turn can lead to dehydration. To prevent dehydration from occurring, it's important to ensure that your child is getting extra fluids. If she continues to vomit up the fluids, contact your healthcare provider who can advise on next steps.

An important thing to note: In the first 24 hours of your child vomiting, keep her from eating solid foods. Instead, have her drink or suck on a store-bought electrolyte solution.

Fever

A fever (a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) can also cause dehydration, as it causes a child to lose fluids more quickly. The higher your child's fever, the more dehydrated she can become. This is why it's important that your child get extra fluids if she has a fever.

Sunburn and Heat Illness

Severe sunburn and extreme exposure to hot weather and heat can also lead to dehydration. If your child has severe sunburn or is suffering from heat-related illness, call his healthcare provider and head to the emergency room.

Signs of severe sunburn can include:

  • Blisters

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Headache

  • General ill feeling

  • Fainting

  • Dehydration.

When to See Your Child's Healthcare Provider

If your child doesn't improve from the above at-home treatment measures—for example, if he still has very bad diarrhea or is vomiting often, even after you've given him the electrolyte solution—notify his healthcare provider and take him to the emergency room. He may need to get intravenous fluids in a hospital setting.

Of course, if you ever suspect your little one may be dehydrated and are unsure about how to treat it, get in touch with your baby’s healthcare provider as soon as possible for personalized advice.

Preventing Dehydration

Whenever your child is sick with an illness that causes fever, diarrhea, or vomiting, it's really important that she get plenty of fluids to keep her from becoming dehydrated. If your baby is under 6 months old, give her extra breast milk or formula, since water is not recommended for babies this young.

If your child is showing mild signs of dehydration, a store-bought electrolyte solution can help ensure that she is rehydrating with the correct balance of salts and sugars, especially if her dehydration is caused by diarrhea.

If you are outside on a hot summer's day with your child, stay in the shade whenever possible. You'll also want to make sure she is protected from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and loose, lightweight cotton clothing with long sleeves, along with baby sunscreen These steps can help protect her from sunburn and dehydration.

It's also important to keep her hydrated before she even starts to get thirsty. So, if you're outside, ensure that you have liquids on hand.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • If you see the following signs in your baby, it may mean that he is mild to moderately dehydrated, and you should notify his healthcare provider for a recommended course of action:
    • Plays less than what's typical for him
    • Has a dry mouth
    • Pees less frequently (in toddlers) or has fewer than six wet diapers in a day (in babies)
    • Cries less
    • Eyes are sunken
    • Fontanelles (the soft spots on your baby's head) are sunken
    • Has looser or fewer stools.

    If you see the following signs in your baby, it may mean he is severely dehydrated, and you should head to the emergency room immediately:

    • Fussiness
    • Excessive sleepiness
    • Sunken eyes
    • Cold and discolored hands and feet
    • Wrinkly skin
    • Urinates one to two times per day.
  • The goal in treating your baby's dehydration is to rehydrate him. Check with your baby's healthcare provider as to what she recommends, but most likely it will be a store-bought electrolyte solution, which has just the right amount of sugars and salts to help rehydrate your baby.

    Follow the dosage directions your provider gives you. If your baby is still breastfeeding, nurse him regularly and give him the solution in between feedings. If your baby is on formula, give only the electrolyte solution until your baby is no longer dehydrated, and then reintroduce the formula.
  • Throughout the day, your baby loses water when he sweats, cries, pees, or poops. When he feeds, he replenishes this water. Dehydration happens when your baby loses water in large amounts, usually due to an illness that causes diarrhea or vomiting, or because your child is overheated and the fluid loss is not adequately replenished.

Now that you know what to look for, you'll be able to recognize the signs of dehydration in your little one if they occur, and start treating her right away. But, of course, it’s safest to prevent your little one getting dehydrated in the first place, so make sure your baby is getting plenty of fluids if she is ever sick or outside on a hot day.

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How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.