It was an unusually hot June afternoon in Toronto when Michelle Williams got a call from her six-year-old son’s school to say Immanuel wasn’t feeling well. When she picked him up, he was in a daze and, once home, went straight to lie down on the couch. By dinnertime, Williams couldn’t wake him up. Terrified, she called 911, and Immanuel was rushed to the hospital. It turns out he was dehydrated—his class had gone on a walking excursion that morning, and he hadn’t drunk anything since.
Doctors gave him fluids by IV, and when he started to improve, they sent him out to the waiting room with some electrolyte drinks. “It was like night and day. Within half an hour, he was back to his normal, bouncy, chatty self,” says Williams.
When a child is dehydrated, the fluid and salt balances in his body are out of whack, and proper nutrients and fluids can’t get to his tissues, explains Michelle Ponti, a paediatrician in London, Ont., and a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s public education advisory committee. And on hot summer days, it can happen quickly if the moisture lost by sweating isn’t replenished.
If your child seems low on energy, irritable or just not herself, it might be a sign she’s getting dehydrated. At this point, you should give her something to drink to see if she improves. Decreased urination; dry lips, mouth and tongue; sunken eyes and lack of tears are signs of severe dehydration. Ponti says you can give your child an oral rehydration solution (like Pedialyte) that you can buy at a drugstore, but because dehydration can be fatal, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor for advice, even if the symptoms seem mild.
Better than treating dehydration is avoiding it altogether. Because kids can get distracted easily when they are running around playing, and children under five have a hard time recognizing or verbalizing that they are thirsty, Ponti suggests reminding them to drink several times an hour on hot days. Children ages four to eight normally need five cups of water a day, but on a hot day they will need more, so be sure to pack accordingly.
Water, milk and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices are your best options for keeping hydrated. “We would never recommend pop, sports drinks or vitamin waters, even though they can be marketed to kids,” says Ponti.
If you have a hard time getting your child to stop and drink water, make it more appealing by freezing juice in ice cube trays and adding it to the water for colour and flavour. Small cups of liquid are less daunting than a large one, and fruits and vegetables (especially watermelon, celery and cucumbers) are also great sources of water. If you have more than one kid, make sure they have individual water bottles. “It’s a great way of monitoring how much a child is taking in,” says Ponti.
Ever since that frightening incident a few years ago, Williams always sends her children off with water bottles or frozen juice boxes. “Immanuel didn’t like to drink when he was younger, but he loved frozen stuff,” she says.
Did you know?
Dehydration often sneaks up on people who are playing in or near water. “There’s water all around, so you forget to drink,” says Ponti, adding that even though you don’t feel it, you are sweating out fluids when you’re swimming.