Sometimes referred to as the 'forgotten nutrient', water is absolutely essential to our health. It makes up two thirds of our body mass and so, when it is lacking, it can cause some very serious issues.
What is it?
Dehydration occurs when fluid is leaving the body faster than it is being replaced; and when there is not enough fluid in the body, it upsets the balance of minerals that enable all parts of the body to do their job properly.
Babies and young children, in particular, can become dehydrated quickly, as their little bodies are more sensitive to loss of fluid. Left untreated, dehydration can be serious, so it is really important to know the signs and to catch and remedy it quickly.
Although dehydration can occur simply as a result of being too hot (offer plenty of drinks in the summer months), it most often occurs as a result of illness.
A fever, which accompanies many types of illness, causes dehydration because the body perspires more, and more moisture is expelled in the breath. Team that with a baby's unwillingness to drink or take their feed when they have a high temperature and are feeling poorly, and dehydration can very easily set in.
Tummy bugs, especially, are a major cause. Not only might your child have a fever, but they could also be losing fluid at a drastic rate through diarrhoea and vomiting.
Teething, as well as illnesses such as colds, sore throats and hand, foot and mouth disease (which can cause ulcers in the mouth), might put your baby or child off drinking, simply because it is painful or difficult to do so.
In babies, signs of dehydration include a sunken fontanelle and dry nappies, but they, and older children, might also have a dry mouth, slightly sunken eyes, urine that is dark yellow in colour, no tears when they cry, and cold hands and feet. They might also be breathing rapidly and seem particularly lethargic.
What can I do?
If you suspect your child might be dehydrated, if you notice any of the above symptoms, take them to a doctor straight away (A&E if necessary) - babies and young children should be seen as soon as possible, so their level of fluid loss can be assessed.
If your little one's dehydration in severe, they might need to stay in hospital for a little while, where they will be given fluids (and minerals) through a drip.
In most cases, when it is not severe, dehydration can be treated at home. If your baby or child has a high fever, giving them liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen (only for babies over three months old, and always follow the dosage instructions to the letter) will bring their temperature down and also make them feel more comfortable if they have a sore throat or any other pain in their mouth. Hopefully this will make them more willing to drink.
If they are still reluctant, keep offering sips of drinks every five minutes or so - even if they have a tummy bug and are still vomiting, some of that liquid will be being absorbed.
Young babies and children should not be offered purely water, because it might further dilute their body's minerals, so keep giving them milk (from breast or bottle), and offer extra drinks in addition to that.
Although diluted fruit juice might go some way towards replacing sugars that are lost during dehydration, it should not be given to children suffering from a tummy bug, because it could actually make their diarrhoea worse.
Instead, ask your GP or pharmacist for oral rehydration sachets. These powders, designed to replace those essential minerals, are simply mixed up with a little water – and most are suitable to use from birth.
As good as oral rehydrations sachets are for curing dehydration, they are not often met with a 'yummy!' face. So, if you have a baby who is prone to spitting out whatever they don't like the taste of (and most do!), ask your doctor or pharmacist for a few syringes, which you can use to squirt the liquid in (aim for the side of their mouth, towards the back, rather than right at the back of their throat, because that could make them gag). They might be cross with you, but they'll get better quicker.