Dehydration in Kids: How to Keep your Baby or Tot Hydrated

RachelMS, RD, LDN, CSSD, CBS

Read time: 5 minutes

What to know about dehydration in babies and toddlers

  • Babies and toddlers are more prone to dehydration than adults

  • Signs and symptoms of dehydration in babies

  • How much water do your baby and toddler need?

  • When to call the doctor

Everyone knows our bodies need water and that we must stay hydrated to survive. But did you know that babies and toddlers are more prone to dehydration than adults?

Know how to make sure your little one is getting the fluids they need, as well as how to spot mild symptoms of dehydration early, to help keep your little one well hydrated.

Why is it easier for babies and toddlers to become dehydrated?

  • Children utilize more fluid than adults, having a higher metabolic rate and water content1,2

  • Children are more susceptible to vomiting and diarrhea, the leading causes of dehydration3,4

  • Babies and toddlers can’t adequately communicate with us when they’re parched or thirsty, so dehydration can occur without us knowing4

  • Many parents are unaware of the signs and symptoms of dehydration to prevent the issue in the first place

Signs and symptoms of dehydration in infants and toddlers

You can take a proactive approach to making sure your child is adequately hydrated by checking for these potential early symptoms of dehydration:

  • Going more than 6 hours without a wet diaper

  • No tears while crying

  • Parched, dry mouth

  • Playing less than usual

  • Sunken soft spot on the top of the head5

More advanced symptoms of dehydration in your child can include:

  • Irritability

  • Excessive sleepiness or fussiness

  • Urine that looks darker and smells stronger than usual

  • Sunken eyes

  • Hands and feet that feel cold and look splotchy

  • Deep, rapid breathing with a high heart rate

  • Urine only 1 or 2 times per day5

You can also assess your child’s level of hydration by performing this simple test:

The Pinch Test: Pinch a small piece of skin on your child’s lower arm or abdomen and it should spring back to normal rapidly. If the skin ‘tents’ or indents briefly, taking more time to return to normal, then your child may be in the early stages of dehydration.6

Note that there may be other symptoms of dehydration not listed above. Always call your child’s health care provider if you are concerned about dehydration.

How much water does my infant and toddler need?

Healthy babies under 6 months old usually do not need extra supplemental liquids (such as water, juice, milk, or non-dairy milk) because they receive adequate hydration and nutrients from breastmilk and/or formula.7

Water can be introduced to your baby around 6 months. Between food feedings, you can begin introducing water in a sippy cup, straw cup, or open cup. Babies between 6 and 12 months old only need about 4 oz per day as they learn to drink and appreciate water, and can gradually increase to around 8 oz per day as they get closer to 1 year.7

Offering water in a cup or sippy cup will help your little one build the healthy habit of drinking water.

At 12 months, as you begin to transition your little one from breastmilk and/or formula to cow’s milk, water can be drunk in larger quantities. Depending on how much cow’s milk your little one drinks (which is recommended for 2 to 3 cups per day), your little one may drink anywhere between 1 and 4 cups of water.7

Note that juice is not recommended for children under the age of 1 year. Between 1 and 3 years, only 4 oz of juice is recommended per day.8

Read more:

How do I Introduce Milk to my Toddler?

Transitioning to Cups for Babies and Toddlers

Tips on how to help keep your child hydrated

Give your child more fluids on hotter days

If your baby is not yet eating solids, offer breastmilk or formula more frequently. Do not give extra water or other fluids to your baby if they are under 6 months unless explicitly recommended by their pediatrician.10

If your baby is eating solid foods and is younger than 1 year, offer water several times a day between feedings – but do not provide more than 8 oz per 24 hours, unless otherwise directed by their health care provider.7 Stay attuned to signs of thirst or early symptoms of dehydration, as too much activity on a hot day or just sitting in a stuffy, sweltering room can lead to sweating and fluid loss.

Be aware that too much water may be harmful to babies under 1 year.9 Speak with your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned about dehydration and what fluids your little one should be drinking to help.

Incorporate liquids into the eating schedule right along with meals and snacks

Older babies and toddlers often eat meals and snacks on a set schedule every day.

For babies: Continue to feed breastmilk and formula on their regular schedule, offering more of either should you think your little one needs a little more fluid. No need to force your little one to drink more if they are refusing.

For toddlers, include access to water and cow’s milk (or milk alternative) for your toddler at the established eating times as well as between meals.

Always call your child’s healthcare provider before offering too many extra fluids to make sure it is safe for your little one.

Avoid carbonated sodas and limit fruit juice

It’s best to avoid carbonated sodas and other sugary drinks as they may negatively impact your baby’s teeth and overall health.7,8

Fruit juice is not recommended for babies under 1 year.8

If your child is over one year, milk and water should still be the primary beverages. Occasionally fruit juice can be given, but no more than 4 ounces a day. If you do offer juice, choose 100% fruit juice with no added or artificial sugars. You can mix the juice with water to help the 4 ounces last longer.

Read more: What to Drink Instead of Sweetened Beverages

Feed your child fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are full of water, not to mention also rich in fiber and nutrients, so a diet rich in produce will help keep your little one hydrated.

Learn about: How can I get My Baby to Love Veggies?

Take special care to prevent dehydration when your child is sick

If your baby has a fever, call their health care provider immediately. If the fever is from heat (such as heatstroke), it’s important that the doctor know and provide feedback on what to do. If the fever is from illness, the doctor will tell you the next steps to take.12

If your baby has diarrhea or an intestinal illness, check in with your child’s health care provider. They may suggest encouraging your child to drink extra breastmilk and/or formula, or water (if you child is older than 6 months) to help keep them hydrated. Though it’s usually not needed, if your child is 3 months or older, ask their health care provider if an electrolyte drink is recommended, and if so how much is suggested.11 Avoid giving soda or fruit juice, as this may only make the situation worse.11 Always check with your child’s doctor before offering an over-the-counter diarrhea medicine or electrolyte drinks.

Read more:

How do I Help my Breastfed Baby with Diarrhea and Constipation?

Diarrhea in Older Babies and Toddlers

If your baby is vomiting, call your infant’s health care provider to get individualized guidance for what to do. They may recommend offering small, frequent sips of liquids once your child’s tummy settles down.13 Offer breastmilk and/or formula; water if your baby is 6 months or older; or if the pediatrician recommends it, a drink rich in electrolytes should your baby be 3 months or older.

Get in touch with the pediatrician if your little one is having trouble keeping down any fluids.

If your baby has a sore throat or hand, foot, and mouth disease, it may be more painful to swallow, causing your child to refuse drinks and food.14 Chat with your child’s health care provider and also provide your little one with more frequent opportunities to drink liquids, whether breastmilk, formula, or water – depending on your child’s age. Check in with the doctor about any advice they may have if your baby is having discomfort when swallowing.

Know when to seek medical attention

Babies can quickly become dangerously dehydrated, so if you think your child is showing early symptoms of dehydration, call the doctor. If your baby is showing more advanced symptoms of dehydration, call the doctor, 911 or take them to the emergency room immediately.

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