Tap Into Water’s Benefits

At first glance, water doesn’t seem to contribute much to your child’s overall health. After all, it has no vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein or carbohydrates. Still, water can be vital to your child’s well-being, especially when it’s hot. Read on to tap into water’s many underrated health benefits and what you can do to help your child stay well-hydrated.

Water is a super ‘nutrient’

Water might not have nutrients per se, but, it’s an important player in keeping your child healthy. Among its many duties, “water aids digestion, helps prevent constipation, normalizes blood pressure and helps stabilize heart beat,” says Joel Steinberg, M.D., professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center of Dallas. Water also carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, cushions joints, protects organs and tissues, helps regulate body temperature and maintains electrolyte (sodium) balance.

For optimal health, kids generally need about a liter of water for every 1,000 calories they consume. But don’t worry about doing the math. With the exception of infants and older kids who get so busy playing that they forget to drink, “let your child’s thirst drive be your guide,” Steinberg says. In other words, make plenty of water available and let your kids drink as much as they want. A benchmark that kids are drinking enough: “They’re urinating every couple of hours,” says Michael Farrell, M.D., chief of staff at Children’s Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati.

Water reduces the risk of heat-related conditions
Because water helps control the body’s temperature, “it’s the first line of defense against heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke,” says Andy Spooner, M.D., director of General Pediatrics at Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. “Both of these illnesses are the result of dehydration.” Although a child can become dehydrated any time of year, it’s more likely to happen during the hot months because children lose more water through the skin as perspiration.

Heat exhaustion results when the body loses too much water (10 to 15 percent of body weight) through sweat within several hours. In school-age and younger kids, heat exhaustion is rare. High school athletes practicing in heat of the day are more likely targets. “But it can happen with children who play outside and forget to drink because they get caught up in what they’re doing,” Spooner says. Signs of heat exhaustion include fatigue, anxiety and drenching sweats.

To guard against dehydration and heat exhaustion, make sure your kids have easy access to water so they can drink at will. Take bottles of water with you. Encourage water breaks if you sense your child is distracted and has forgotten about drinking, especially if he’s physically active. In fact, “30 to 40 minutes before children play sports, have them drink a cup to a cup and a half of water,” Steinberg advises. Then make sure they drink another cup to a cup and a half every half hour during the activity. Steinberg also advises against routinely giving kids sports drinks like Gatorade, which contain salt and sugar. “Kids don’t lose a lot of salt in their sweat. Water is all they need,” he says.

With heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition, body temperature rises to dangerously high levels because the body gets so hot it can’t cool itself. Although dehydration contributes to heatstroke, “it’s mainly related to a hot environment,” Steinberg says. Heatstroke is an emergency. Call 911 if you think your child might be suffering from it. To prevent heatstroke, it goes without saying: Never leave your kids alone in the car where the temperature can rise to 140 degrees F on a hot day.

Water helps control weight

You’ve probably heard the latest statistics: 15 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese, which is triple what the proportion was in 1980. To help your child beat the obesity rap, encourage her to drink water or juice spritzers (seltzer with a splash of fruit juice) between meals instead of juice boxes or regular soft drinks.

Researchers have found that kids who are regular soda drinkers consume more total calories than those who aren’t. Why? It’s not just the 120 calories (or so) sodas generally contain per 12-ounce can. Liquid calories tend to get lost on the calorie radar screen.

“Studies show that when we consume calories in liquid form, we don’t compensate for those calories by eating less at subsequent meals,” says Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington. In addition, drink water yourself between meals. “Parental modeling is a strong influence on children’s eating patterns,” Johnson says. “If children see their mom drinking water, they’re more likely to drink it than some other type of beverage.”

Meanwhile, stick to milk at meals (and do so yourself, to set a good example). For growing bones, “kids need the calcium,” Johnson says (and so do you). Plus, studies show that a calcium-rich diet may also help keep weight in check.

Water keeps teeth healthy

For structurally stronger, more decay-resistant teeth, kids need fluoride. “It’s critical to have fluoride in the water through the age of 14,” says Cynthia Sherwood, D.D.S., a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. “Fluoride strengthens permanent teeth that are forming under the gum,” Sherwood says. By the time teeth have erupted, fluoride’s primary job of strengthening teeth from the inside out is over.

Generally, if your tap water comes from a public water supply, it’s adequately fluoridated. But if you have well water, drink primarily bottled water that’s not fluoridated, or have a water filter on your kitchen faucet (which can remove heavy metals and fluoride from public water), talk with your pediatrician or your child’s dentist about having your child take a daily fluoride supplement or fluoride combination multivitamin, Sherwood advises. Fluoride supplements are available in liquid form for infants and toddlers and chewable tablets for older kids, she says.

The Best Water Bottle

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about BPA, a chemical used to make polycarbonate water bottles clear and rigid, which may leach into whatever liquid your child’s water bottle contains. If you’re concerned about BPA, look for BPA-free plastic reusable water bottles and sippy cups, such as polyethylene, an opaque, less shiny plastic that doesn’t leach BPA. It’s sometimes marked with recycling code 1 and/or the abbreviation PET on the bottle. Other plastics not made with BPA are high-density polyethylene (recycling code 2, HDPE) and polypropylene (recycling code 5, PP).

Why Babies Don’t Need Water

During the first year of life, babies generally don’t need water. “They don’t need any additional fluids beyond formula or breast milk,” says Michael Farrell, M.D.

In fact, giving infants water can be dangerous because they can easily suffer from water intoxication, a condition in which their developing kidneys can’t excrete water fast enough. As a result, water builds up in the body and dilutes the electrolyte balance of the blood, causing seizures, coma, even death.

“To cause water intoxication, it takes no more than three 8-ounce bottles of water given over 12 hours,” says James P. Keating, M.D., McKim Marriott professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. (And take heed. Water intoxication also can happen if your baby swallows too much water during an infant swimming class.

To avoid water intoxication, simply give your baby a little extra breast milk or formula instead of water if you sense he’s thirsty on especially hot days, Keating says.

Diluted formula is another cause of water intoxication. Check the label for proper mixing instructions. And be sure to instruct caregivers to do the same.

And avoid giving your baby water if he’s vomiting or has diarrhea. Under those circumstances, an oral electrolyte maintenance solution such as Pedialyte may be necessary. Consult your pediatrician.

Sandra Gordon is a journalist and author whose most recent book is Consumer Reports Best Baby Products, 2007.