There’s no shortage of advice–good and bad, floating around when there’s a new baby. Many well-meaning busybodies will nonchalantly share unsolicited advice, and many unsuspecting new mothers will become racked with guilt over the perception that they don’t know how to care for their little bundle of joy.
Have you heard the advice that it is bad to hold babies too much or that babies who achieve their developmental milestones early are exceptionally gifted? It’s best not to listen to every piece of advice you hear. But you should be diligent about protecting the health and safety of your newborn.
One question that tends to cause some confusion is related to water consumption. We all know that human beings need water to survive, and for adults, the general recommendation is around 64 ounces of water daily. But that advice doesn’t translate directly to newborns. Their small size means that the breast milk or formula that they consume provides sufficient water to keep them hydrated.
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When Can Babies Have Water?
The consensus is that babies can begin to drink water in addition to other liquids like breast milk or formula beginning at six months of age. The key is to offer small amounts of safe drinking water in addition to their regular nutrition. That means that you are not replacing their formula or breast milk with water but rather introducing them to the idea of drinking water.
By twelve months of age, babies should drink water as their primary source of hydration. Many infants are still breastfeeding at this age, and that is fine. But if they’re being offered a drink with their solids, you should stick to water over juice. It's better to avoid the high-calorie, sugar-laden beverages that offer no real nutrition in return.
Why is Water Not Suitable for Young Babies?
You may be wondering why water is not suitable for babies under six months of age. Although water is vital for human life, infants are small and have small requirements for liquids. These little ones receive all the hydration they need through their liquid diet of breastmilk or formula. Even in hot weather and with fevers when dehydration is more common, young babies should breastfeed more frequently than drink water.
Water Intoxication in Infants
In the first six to nine months of life, babies are at the highest risk for water intoxication. This occurs when too much water dilutes sodium levels in the body and puts the infant at risk of major health consequences. This imbalance can cause seizures, coma, permanent brain damage, and even death.
Avoid the risk of water intoxication by:
- Waiting to introduce water as a beverage until 12 months of age.
- Closely supervise bath and pool time to prevent gulping water. Avoid diluting formula or breast milk with water.
Not only is water intoxication a serious threat to brain development, but it can also wreak havoc on an infant’s tiny kidneys. Common signs of water intoxication in infants include inconsolable crying, vomiting, lethargy, and seizures.
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Nutrition Interference in Infants
Water fills up the stomach and can interfere with the baby’s hunger, causing the baby to consume fewer calories through breastmilk or formula. And since water is non-nutritive, these babies miss out on important nutrients that they need to grow. Babies are small, and their stomachs are tiny, so even if it’s a relatively small amount of water, it can still interfere with nutrient absorption.
Water Quality and Babies
Whether you’re preparing powdered formula or you’re ready to introduce those first few sips of water to an older baby, you should know that these little ones may be more sensitive to water quality. For example, well water often contains trace amounts of contaminants that are fine for older people to consume but can pose a risk to smaller babies.
These contaminants vary based on where you live. Nitrates can be common in rural areas with a heavy agriculture presence, like in California and the midwestern US. Farmers often use fertilizers on their fields that leach into the water supply. But the only way to know for sure is to have your water tested.
If you’re concerned, you can also rely on bottled water or filtration systems to improve the water quality before using it to prepare the formula. Other contaminants that can be a big problem include lead, bacteria, and parasites.
The Bottom Line on Babies and Water
Water, although essential for older humans, can be a major health risk in young infants. Babies under six months of age should never drink water, and babies under one year of age should only be offered small amounts of water to get accustomed to drinking it. However, by their first birthday, most babies are ready to quality water as their primary beverage. Parents should be aware that giving too much water or introducing water too early can have serious health consequences, including permanent brain damage and death. If you suspect that your infant has consumed too much water, they need emergency medical intervention to treat water intoxication and restore nutritive balance.
There’s no shortage of advice given when you have a baby. But one piece of advice that you should take to heart is to avoid giving your newborn water. In most cases, babies receive all the hydration they need from their breastmilk or formula diets. If there is ever a reason to offer water, it should be under the care of a your baby’s pediatrician.
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