dehydration and children

Both children and adults lose water from their bodies on a daily basis. This may be through sweat,tears, urine, through evaporation from the skin and as vapour from the lungs. Usually, the fluids and electrolytes we lose are replaced by water and salts in our diet. However, sometimes children may lose large amounts of water and electrolytes due to fever, diarrhoea, vomiting or excessive sweating due to illness. Certain illnesses may also make it difficult for a child to drink adequate fluids. When children are unable to replace the fluids they have lost, they can become dehydrated.1

The importance of keeping children hydrated when sick

Children are especially susceptible to dehydration because of their relatively small body weights and large turnover of water and electrolytes. Children are also more likely to experience diarrhoea than adults.2 Diarrhoea is commonly caused by gastroenteritis or food poisoning and babies and young children are particularly vulnerable. Babies or young children experiencing diarrhoea should therefore receive prompt treatment.3

Sick children need special attention to make sure they do not become dehydrated. This is especially true in hot weather, even in the case of minor illnesses such as colds. Minor illnesses may cause a slight increase in body temperature, which in hot weather may lead to dehydration.4 When your child is sick, offer them plenty of fluids to help prevent this. It is better to offer frequent, small amounts of fluid rather than trying to force large amounts of fluids at one time. Drinking too much at once can trigger vomiting, which increases fluid loss. Use a teaspoon or syringe for young children and infants. Electrolyte solutions can be used to help manage dehydration and are available at pharmacies. Avoid using sports drinks to hydrate a child, as these contain a lot of sugar and may worsen a case of diarrhoea.5

As babies and children are particularly susceptible, seek medical advice if diarrhoea persists for more than:
  • six hours in infants less than 6 months
  • 12 hours in children aged 6 months to 3 years
  • 24 hours in children aged 3 to 6 years
  • 48 hours in children over 6 years of age

Signs & Symptoms of dehydration in Children

One of the most obvious signs of dehydration in young babies is a decrease in urination i.e. a lack of wet nappies. If a baby goes for six to eight hours between wetting nappies, he or she is likely to be dehydrated. Another sign of possible dehydration is when there is only a small amount of urine that is dark in colour and has a strong smell.6

Your child may cry more than usual if dehydrated, as dehydration will make him or her more irritable. Dehydration may also cause a sunken soft spot (fontanelle) in young infants and the eyes may appear sunken as well.6

Children and babies may be less active than usual when dehydrated. In severe cases, they may be extremely sleepy, lethargic and hard to wake. Their skin will be cool and dry to the touch and the skin on their lips may look dry and cracked. An easy way to tell if your child is dehydrated is to pinch a fold of skin between your thumb and forefinger. If the skin remains in the pinched up position after you let it go, they are dehydrated.6

What else can I do to help my children with rehydration?

It is important to stay calm and reassure your child when they are sick. Vomiting in particular can be frightening to young children, as well as exhausting for children of all ages. If your child is losing fluid through vomiting or diarrhoea ensuring they remain hydrated during this time will help with a speedy recovery.7

Children who are dehydrated due to an illness such as diarrhoea or vomiting may have their fluid losses replaced with an oral rehydration solution (ORS). An ORS has the correct amount of electrolyte salts and sugar needed to help the body absorb exactly what it needs. Avoid juices. These do not have the right combinations of salts and may even make diarrhoea worse.8

Maintaining good fluid levels is vital to avoid dehydration. This can be helped by continuing and even increasing the amount of breastfeeding whenever possible. Babies may also be given boiled water in‐between feeds which will also help to keep their fluid levels up.8

It’s important that feeding continue as much as possible otherwise weight loss will occur. If feeding stops, try to re‐introduce it within 24 hours. Good foods to choose include: plain biscuits and bread, potatoes, rice and noodles, vegetables, plain meats, fish and eggs. Other foods that can be reintroduced gradually include sweet foods such as honey, jam and jelly, and also dairy foods like cheese and yoghurt.8

Gastrolyte Electrolyte Rehydration Formula Ready to Drink provides an effective and convenient way to rehydrate the body quickly and is also beneficial in stopping mild dehydration in children of all ages. It is available in ready to drink pop top bottles, in both strawberry and orange flavour, making it a pleasant drink for children to take. Gastrolyte Electrolyte Rehydration Formula powder sachets are available in orange flavour and are dissolved in water.

Use only as directed. Always read the label. If symptoms persist, consult your healthcare professional.
  1. Kids Health, Dehydration, 2013,, 29/01/2013
  2. Mayo Clinic, Dehydration – Risk Factors, 2011,, 29/01/2013
  3. Better Health Channel, Diarrhoea, 2011,, 29/01/2013
  4. Better Health Channel, Child safety‐ Hot Weather, 2012,, 29/01/2013
  5. University of Maryland Medical Centre, Dehydration – Treatment, 2009,, 29/01/2013
  6. Livestrong, Symptoms of Dehydration in Newborns, 2010,, 02/02/2013
  7. Kids Health, Vomiting, 2013,,02/02/2013
  8. Queensland Government, Diarrhoea in Young Children, 2009,, 28/03/2013