Dehydration in newborn babies is one of many parents biggest fears and a scary thing to experience. New babies aren’t equipped with “low fluid” indicators, so hydration is just another thing that new parents have to think about. It’s difficult for most adults to know that they’re dehydrated before severe symptoms set in, and predicting another person’s need for water is even trickier.
Do yourself and your baby a favor by taking a minute to learn the signs of dehydration in newborn babies. We’ll also help you determine what to do if your baby is dehydrated and how you can prevent dehydration in the future.
The Dangers of Dehydration
A newborn’s body is almost 80 percent water at birth. That water is needed for the growth of cells and development of organs. Everything from the formation of saliva and the digestion of breast milk to hormone production and oxygen circulation requires an adequate supply of water at all times. Water is lost throughout the day for many reasons, so babies need a routine resupply in order to stay hydrated.
Water delivers salt as well as fluid to keep the human body functioning. When levels drop too low, systems start to breakdown. There simply isn’t enough water to keep the skin cells moisturized, the heart protected, the brain functioning and the blood flowing. If the problem isn’t corrected soon enough, death is the final consequence of dehydration.
What Causes Dehydration in Infants?
Babies are like all humans in that some water leaves their pores through the process of just living. They may also lose additional water by sweating, crying and urinating. Those routine water losses are easily replenished if your baby is breastfeeding or consuming formula healthfully.
Dehydration often sets in when an unusual amount of water is lost without adequate replacement. That may occur when a baby gets sick and suffers from diarrhea or excessive vomiting. If your baby seems to spit up a lot or struggles to feed effectively, dehydration is also a possible risk.
Simply not breastfeeding or bottle feeding at a suitable frequency can lead to mild or moderate dehydration, which is why on-demand breastfeeding is so valuable for newborns. That allows your baby to control his or her water intake.
Finally, pay attention to the amount of time that your baby spends in sunlight or other sources of heat. Too much eat leads to excessive sweating which easily leads to dehydration.
Signs of Dehydration in Newborn Babies
Early dehydration may come with no obvious signs. That’s especially true if your baby is sick because you may assume that any fussiness is associated with the bug rather than dehydration. The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the signs of dehydration so that you can take fast action when you notice one or two developing.
The earliest sign is dryness. Your baby’s mouth and tongue may appear or feel dry, and you may eventually notice that your little one cries without shedding tears. Sometimes a dry mouth is kind of sticky, so don’t rule it out if your baby’s mouth isn’t bone dry to the touch. Your baby’s eyes may appear to sink into their face a bit, and you may notice that your baby’s soft spot seems more sunken than usual. These are all signs that your baby’s body is drying out and desperately needs more water.
The best way to determine the extent of dehydration is to look in your baby’s diaper. If your little one isn’t urinating at least every few hours, dehydration is a possibility. Your baby may produce only one or two wet diapers per day at first, but he or she should be up to at least six wet diapers daily by their fourth or fifth day of life. Low output is a red flag for dehydration.
You may also notice that a dehydrated baby is fussier than usual. It’s difficult to determine the exact cause of crying, whining or low energy, so count diapers and explore your baby’s eyes, mouth and soft spot for other signs of possible dehydration. You should watch for all of these signs even closer if your baby gets sick and is losing a lot of water to diarrhea, crying or spitting up.
What to Do About Infant Dehydration
Dehydration is easiest to treat when caught early. It’s a good idea to monitor your baby’s bowel movements and wet diapers to ensure that the output is suitable for the age of your baby. You should also check your newborn’s cheeks and tongue to ensure those areas are moist with saliva. Looking at the soft spot also helps so that you learn what it looks like normally and will notice if it starts to appear sunken.
If you do start noticing signs of dehydration in your infant, contact your pediatrician or family doctor right away. Going in for a quick wellness check is always a good idea because your doctor can determine how severe the dehydration is, selecting the best course of action to increase water intake for your baby.
Mild to moderate dehydration can occur from simple everyday routines, and there are often multiple influences that contribute to the problem. Other episodes of dehydration may arise from special circumstances. Some of the most common treatment options include:
1. Encourage more frequent feeding to increase water consumption naturally.
Breastmilk is the optimal solution for dehydration because there are so many health benefits besides the delivery of water. Bottle feeding works as well because it is water based. If you can allow your baby to breastfeed on demand, you may notice that they want to feed more often or for longer periods of time than you have been scheduling. If that’s the problem, then your baby can fix the problem simply by feeding more.
If your baby doesn’t want to feed more, then you should discuss possible feeding problems with your doctor. Ruling out underlying medical conditions or illness may help you determine the cause of the sluggish feeding and the dehydration. You may also benefit from meeting with a lactation consultant because latching problems can interfere with breastfeeding, possibly resulting in dehydration.
2. Make sure your baby isn’t too warm or sweating excessively.
It’s common for new parents to go a bit overboard when bundling their new babies because they want to make sure that their newborns are warm at all times. Unfortunately, bundling tightly or adding too many layers of clothing and blankets can lead to sweating and dehydration.
This is a simple problem to solve. Feel your baby’s skin to see if it feels moist, clammy, wet or too warm. If he or she is too warm, then you can take off some layers or switch to a lightweight swaddle blanket or jumpsuit.
Also check the temperature setting for the heat in your home. As a general rule 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit is a safe and comfortable room temperature for small babies. You don’t want to add space heaters to a room where your baby spends a lot of time because it’s difficult to measure the heat collecting from those added heat sources.
3. Control fever, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms of illness.
If you get a rectal temperature reading over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, your baby is running a fever. That may place your newborn at heightened risk of dehydration if it continues long term. If your baby is also vomiting or experiencing loose and liquid stool, the risk is even higher. A visit to the doctor will determine the cause of the illness so that you can fix the problem quickly.
In addition to administering all treatment recommended by your doctor, you may use over-the-counter medications to break a fever. Give your baby a cool sponge bath may also help break the fever. The faster you can bring all of the cold or flu symptoms to an end, the faster you can start rehydrating your baby to avoid more serious consequences.
Sick babies may want to feed less than well babies, but it’s important to attempt feedings as often as possible. If your little one is consuming less milk at each feeding, they need more feedings to keep their water intake up. Breastmilk is also great medicine for a sick baby, so try to offer a breast throughout the day and night.
4. Give your baby Pedialyte or another fluid and electrolyte replacement drink.
This is much easier to do with an older baby, but your doctor may recommend squirting a little Pedialyte into the corner of your baby’s mouth if severe dehydration is a serious concern. Warning: Don’t do this with an infant until you talk to your doctor and discuss how much you should give and when.
5. Monitor your baby’s milk consumption.
It’s difficult to monitor and record the exact amount of milk that a breastfed baby consumes, but you can pay attention to the length of time that your baby feeds. Try to get your baby to empty both of your breasts at each feeding. If your newborn is leaving one or both breasts full or partially depleted, then they likely aren’t consuming enough milk to stay properly hydrated.
Meeting with a lactation consultant or an experienced doctor is often the first step. A professional can determine if there is a latch problem, an issue with your nipples, or possibly problems with your breast milk that interfere with your baby’s ability or willingness to feed properly. Fixing those problems should help your baby feed longer, eliminating concerns of dehydration naturally.
When your baby simply cannot breastfeed enough to stay satisfied and hydrated, bottle supplementation is an option. You can pump breast milk and feed it to your baby in the bottle. That will keep your milk supply high in case your baby is able to resume breastfeeding later. It will also ensure that your baby receives the many health benefits that can only come from your unique breast milk.
6. Severe dehydration may result in hospitalization.
Most babies can overcome mild to moderate dehydration with fast and consistent treatment at home. If your baby doesn’t respond to those at-home treatment options, your doctor may suggest hospitalization. That allows a medical team to track, record and evaluate your baby’s intake and output while determining the cause of dehydration and implementing rapid treatment options that you don’t have at home.
Most dehydrated babies are admitted due to underlying medical problems. Since dehydration can lead to serious illness or even death, it’s important to follow your doctor’s suggestions and admit your baby if it’s recommended.
How to Prevent Dehydration in Newborn Babies
There is a lot you can do to prevent dehydration in your newborn. Start by limiting your baby’s risk of catching a bug and getting sick by taking the following actions:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Get the flu vaccine, pneumonia vaccine and others recommended by your doctor.
- Ask all caregivers to take the same steps.
- Keep older siblings away from the baby when they’re sick.
- Use air purifiers to eliminate germs in your home environment.
It’s also important to protect your baby from extremely hot or cold weather. It’s tempting to take your new baby out on a sunny day, but doing so could put his or her fragile body at risk of excessive sweating and dehydration. Wait until the sun goes down, then enjoy a fun evening instead. Dressing for the weather is just as important as using your best judgement when timing outings.
You can also stay vigilant with basic tracking of your newborn baby. How often is she breastfeeding? How many wet and dirty diapers is he producing each day? Does she maintain a healthy body temperature even when fully bundled? Pay attention to what’s going in and out of your baby so that you have a better chance of catching dehydration early if it does set in.
If your baby does get sick, make sure that he or she has many opportunities to breastfeed even if it cuts into daily routines. Make every effort to break and control fevers, and see your doctor as early as possible.