Parents have been thirsty to ask me questions about how they can tell if their infant or young child is getting dehydrated due to a stomach virus or other illness.  Well, let me see if I can fill-up everyone’s knowledge tank with some information on this topic.

Dehydration occurs when your body lacks enough water and body salts to keep it working right. When severe, this condition can result in life-threatening situations such as convulsions and dangerous heart rhythms.  You normally lose water when you sweat, urinate, and even breathe, but you can lose more than normal if you have a virus that makes you throw-up, causes diarrhea or increases your sweating due to a fever. We normally drink enough liquids to replace the water we lose every day, but if a virus makes us feel nauseous we may not want to drink enough to stay hydrated. People who have been out in the heat too long or who are doing  vigorous athletic activity are also at risk for dehydration.

So what are some signs of dehydration?  Older children may tell you they are thirsty (which is actually a late sign that dehydration is underway, not an early one) and may also appear lightheaded, dizzy or tired.  Their lips or mouth may appear dry and they may complain of a rapid heartbeat as well.  Infants may also show dry lips, lack tears when they cry, have sunken eyes, or a very sunken soft spot on the top of their heads.  You might also notice a decrease in the frequency  and the amount of urination for at least 6-8 hours.

What should you do if your child feels sick and doesn’t want to drink?

  • Instead of forcing lots of fluids  all at once, give your child  small sips once or twice an hour.
  • Don’t give  large amounts of soda or other caffeinated beverages since caffeine can make you want to urinate more, just when you need to be holding on to fluids.
  • If your infant  is able to breastfeed and is only experiencing losses due to diarrhea, continue to breastfeed since that can keep your baby well hydrated.
  • If your infant is  too irritable to breastfeed or your child will not keep the fluids you are offering down, then try an oral rehydration solution. This type of liquid is designed with the right amount of salt and sugar to be well absorbed into your child and is usually well tolerated so rehydration can occur. Your child’s doctor can tell you how much to give of an oral rehydration solution  or other liquids that might be recommended
  • Eating  popsicles is another great way to get fluids into your child to hydrate them if they don’t want to drink but check with your child’s doctor to see if more fluids than what is contained in a popsicle is needed to help your child overcome dehydration

When do we worry? If your child is not holding fluids down, has no urine for 8-12 hours, and feels dizzy when they stand up, then seek medical attention.  Your doctor will want to examine your child for why the dehydration is occurring, and rarely may recommend rehydrating your child with an intravenous saltwater solution.

Hopefully tips like this will dry-up all your concerns when it comes to knowing more about whether or not your child may be getting dehydrated.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital at the University of Vermont Medical Center and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives.








Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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