Keeping your cool: Hydration during an illness

Toddlers know plenty of things – how to get gum in their hair, somehow, even though they’re not allowed to chew gum, how to throw that one toy in such a way that it makes the maximum amount of noise coming down. One thing they don’t always know is how to take care of themselves, and this is especially true when they’re not feeling well. Sick, cranky, tired toddlers don’t always want to be persuaded to take another sip of water, even if you promise that staying hydrated will help them start to feel better.

Hydration is important during any illness, but especially during an illness that has symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or a fever. These symptoms carry a higher risk of dehydration, and while toddlers don’t need to drink too much to stay hydrated, they do have to have liquids at short, regular intervals.

For vomiting

Illnesses that cause vomiting can be especially tricky for hydration, not because vomiting is so much more dehydrating than the other two symptoms, but because toddlers’ tummies often have a hard time keeping liquids down. The trick is to offer small amounts of fluids, but offer them often. You can start out by offering one or two tablespoons of liquid at a time, waiting a few minutes, and then offering a few more tablespoons full. If it stays down, you can increase the amount that you offer the next time around a bit.

Water is generally the ideal way to stay hydrated, but if a child has an illness that causes vomiting, like a stomach bug, their pediatrician might recommend that they sometimes be given something with electrolytes in it, like Pedialyte or a sports’ drink, or with other nutrients in it, like a juice.

What liquids to offer

Water is generally one of the best ways to stay hydrated in all situations, but water doesn’t sound that exciting to most toddlers, especially when they’re sleepy and sick and upset, and might rather nap than drink water every 15 minutes, which is why many parents find themselves turning to other liquids.

Toddlers generally shouldn’t have much juice because of the high sugar content, although during an illness, hydration becomes especially important, and some families find it works best to bend the rules a little. Juice has sugars in it that can make diarrhea worse, though, so for illnesses where a toddler has diarrhea, if you’re offering juice, it’s a good idea to dilute it with water.

Herbal teas can be a nice way to add a little flavor to the water you offer your toddler, and can be served either iced or left just lukewarm. Chamomile is nice and mild for delicate little tummies, and mint can be tasty for more adventurous tots. Mint is also known in folk remedies as a cure for nausea.

Sports drinks are popular choices, but have more sugar in them than is really advisable. There are companies which make pediatric versions of sports drinks especially for illnesses, though, and these can be helpful.

Some electrolyte solutions, like Pedialyte, make ice-pops, which have less sugar in them than juice pops you can get from the store. You can also make your own ice pops at home with the same diluted juice you’re offering in liquid form, or with cooled-down herbal teas, or you can simply add ice to water to keep it a little more interesting. For toddlers who are looking for something especially dazzling and distracting for their anti-dehydration water, try adding food coloring to the ice cube tray before freezing the ice, so they can watch the water slowly change color as the ice melts. This trick works best in a clear cup with a straw or spout, so that the ice can’t become a choking hazard as it melts.

How to offer liquids

If your toddler is resisting their usual cup during an illness, you can dress up drinking in many different ways. An easy place to start is by holding out a big, adult cup for them, or offering fluids with fun, brightly colored straws. For toddlers who are still resistant, you can try mixing it up even further by using the type of syringe that comes with medication, or even spoon-feeding liquids. It’s time-consuming, and surely not how you want to provide fluids most of the time, but during the special case of an illness, doing something unexpected may help to make staying hydrated fun enough that your little one won’t resist.

Warning signs to watch for

Signs of dehydration include:

  • A dry mouth or dry tongue
  • Dry crying, or crying without tears
  • No urination or wet diapers for 3 hours
  • Sunken cheeks, eyes, or soft spot on the top of the skull
  • Listlessness or irritability

If you think your toddler might be becoming dehydrated, it’s important to call their pediatrician to check in and see if they need to take a trip to the doctor’s office or to Urgent Care.

  • Tamara Hargens-Bradley. “When kids get stomach bugs, preventing dehydration is priority No. 1.” Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Oregon Health and Science University, January 9 2013. Retrieved June 15 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Dehydration.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, October 29 2016. Retrieved June 15 2017.
  • “Drinks to Prevent Dehydration in a Vomiting Child.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved June 15 2017.
  • “Dehydration and Your Child.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved June 15 2017.
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