As many as half of children and teens ages 6 to 19 could be mildly dehydrated on a regular basis, according to a new study.
Researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health initially set out to study sugary-drink consumption habits, but in the process they found that more than half of the subjects weren’t drinking enough of anything during the day to stay hydrated.
The findings are especially notable for kids who live in Arizona.
The body naturally loses water just going through a normal day, says Horton, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Arizona Chapter (AzAAP). “The very act of breathing causes you to lose some water.”
Children and teens who are mildly dehydrated may act fatigued or have difficulty paying attention. That interferes with learning and can impact overall health.
“I like to use this analogy: If your car is half a quart low, it will still run, but over time, it will start to break down,” says Horton.
For younger children, the thirst reflex is still developing, so they are not always aware that they need something to drink. Plus, kids are reluctant to take a break from play to sip some water. They need reminding, says Horton. “We encourage parents to be the extra help to remind them to make sure they have access to water at all times.”
When children reach the teen years, they may repress the thirst reflex and refrain from seeking water for similar reasons: They want to keep doing what they are doing. Or they may not want to be seen as “different” by carrying around a bottle of water.
Teens who stop for a coffee drink in the morning may also be at risk, because caffeine—also found in soda and tea—can dehydrate the body. It acts as a diuretic, turning off the body’s ability to retain water.
“If you get a venti Starbucks made with milk, it can fill up your stomach and suppress your appetite,” says Horton. “It also may not make you feel quite as thirsty, so you don’t end up drinking any water.”
How much water should children drink per day? Daily water requirements depend on age and activity levels.
Experts at the U. S. Department of Agriculture recommend that kids get the majority of their fluids by drinking water and eating foods that contain fluids. Children 1 to 3 years old need around 32 ounces of drinking water daily. Ages 4 to 8 need around 40 ounces per day and children over the age of 9 need 56 to 65 ounces per day.
Not every school has a water fountain around every corner, so parents and teachers need to be proactive.
Margo S. O’Neill, MEd, head of school at Villa Montessori School in Phoenix, strongly encourages parents to send a reusable, BPA-free water bottle to school with their children every day. “We designate a special place for storing [water bottles] in the classroom during the school day so they are always within view, which acts as a reminder,” says O’Neill.
Staying proactive is especially important when children attend an older school; plumbing may not deliver water that is fresh tasting or cooled to an appealing temperature. O’Neill’s school is lucky—new filtered-water fountains were installed in every elementary classroom during a recent construction project. “We also have numerous water fountains in our outdoor areas,” she says. “Especially during the summer, staff remind children frequently to drink, drink, drink.”
Getting kids to drink water
Parents should visually demonstrate to children how much water should be consumed each day. “I have set four eight-ounce glasses on the kitchen counter to show my 6-year-old grandson how much 32 ounces of water is, the suggested amount for a 50-pound child,” says O’Neill. “I have explained that, during the summer, he needs to drink a bit more than that. When he got his new water bottle for summer camp, we experimented with how many times he had to fill and empty it to meet his goal.”
Parents also should educate children on how to “read” their urine—if it’s clear, they are drinking enough. “Upon exiting the restroom, my grandson will sometimes tell me, ‘I sure didn’t drink enough water today!’” says O’Neill.
Teachers can use math to help students learn about drinking enough water, she says. Students can conduct a survey at the end of the day and graph how many of them met their goals. Students could research the impact that dehydration has on the brain and body to help them learn about the connection between water consumption and cognitive functioning.
“Children do what we do, so both parents and teachers need to model [the importance of] drinking water,” says O’Neill.