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By Agustina Fernandez January 19, 2023 10 min read
Reviewed by Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS
Table of Contents
As adults, we rarely give a second thought to our water intake. Isn't water just something that everyone needs to drink? Well, for young tots, it's a totally different story. Before 6 months, breast milk or formula serves as the only food or drink that your little one needs. Although it can seem counterintuitive not to give your baby water early on, there are many good reasons why this is the best practice.
From contaminated water to bodily imbalances, malnutrition, infection, unintended early weaning, and even water intoxication, these dangers make giving your baby water not worth the risk. If you'd like to learn more about why infants can't handle water and when it is appropriate to introduce it to your baby's diet, read on!
To answer the question of when can babies drink water, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that before 6 months, babies do not require water. Only once your little one reaches 6 months is it okay to give your baby a limited amount of water. While giving your baby a tiny bit of water at this age does not pose a health risk, it only becomes truly necessary beginning at 12 months.
For babies between 6 and 12 months of age, breast milk and formula are still more important than water. While water is only a source of hydration, breast milk and formula are nutritionally complete foods that can also offer your baby a source of healthy hydration.
You may also be interested in: When Do Babies Stop Drinking Formula?
Once your little one is ready to take their first sips, it's important that you offer them water in a way that's safe for them. What does that mean exactly?
Well, it comes down to giving them the right amount of water as they can only handle so much when they're still so young. Beyond that, you also need to make sure that water is squeaky clean, and safe for drinking. Read on to learn more about safe practices when giving your baby water!
How much water your baby can drink depends on their age. At 6 months, the appropriate amount of water for a baby is between 4 to 8 ounces per day. Importantly, this limit should not be exceeded otherwise you put your baby at risk of water intoxication. And of course, water is not suitable for replacing your baby's breast milk or infant formula feedings.
Since your baby doesn't need to have water at 6 months, at this stage, drinking water is more valuable for teaching your baby to learn how to use a cup rather than for the water intake itself.
You can introduce water to your baby by offering them small sips of water from an open cup or straw cup rather than a sippy cup or bottle. To drink water, young babies will need a helping hand from their parents. So get ready to help them bring the cup to their mouth, hold it there for two counts, and then take it away from their lips.
Teaching your baby how to drink from an open cup rather than a sippy cup will help your little one develop oral motor skills. The benefit to starting healthy habits like this early on is that once your baby is weaned they'll have the skills to hydrate themselves.
As a rule of thumb, the older babies get, the more water they need. For babies who've hit the one-year mark, they'll drink somewhere between 8 and 32 ounces of water per day. Of course, all babies are different, while some need closer to the 8-ounce side of things, others will drink closer to 32 ounces.
Alright, so now we know how much babies can drink but are all kinds of water safe for babies? The short answer is that no, not all water is equal. Your baby needs a clean source of water free of any possible contaminants.
Even before your baby can drink water, it's super important that when mixing baby formula you're using sterile water to do so. Any water given to babies under 6 months old must be boiled regardless of the source. Whether you get your water from the municipal system, bottled water, or a private well, it has to be boiled before using it to make up infant formula.
You should boil the water for at least one minute and then let it cool before using it to prepare a bottle feeding. Make sure to carefully follow the instructions of your baby's formula when preparing it.
At 6 months, you can let your baby drink water straight from the tap in a beaker or cup. If you call the United States your home, thankfully most of the tap water in your country is safe. This is generally true unless you know your tap water has recently been contaminated, you have untested well water, or your baby has a weak immune system.
In these cases, you may be wondering whether bottled water is a good alternative to tap water for mixing formula. Unfortunately, bottled water may have high levels of salt or sulfate making it unsuitable for babies and toddlers. Instead, you may wish to consider purchasing distilled water or using an appropriate water filtration system. Always be sure to contact your local health department if you're concerned about the safety of your tap water.
One of the many issues with giving your baby water before 6 months of age is that it takes the place of their usual breast milk or formula and that means they aren't getting the important nutrients that babies need.
Not only that but drinking too much water too early on can cause serious bodily imbalances that put your baby at risk of various medical emergencies and even death. We'll walk you through the different risks so that you can better understand how an inappropriate introduction of water can put your little one in harm's way.
If you're thinking to yourself that water intoxication sounds scary, you'd be right. Thankfully, this condition is rare as it takes quite a substantial amount of water to cause it. Nevertheless, because it is serious when it does occur, it's important to be aware of it. Water intoxication happens when an excess of water is consumed causing electrolyte imbalances in the body.
For babies and young children, in particular, too much water can decrease their sodium levels, this condition is known as hyponatremia. When this happens, cells throughout the body start to swell with water. This swelling is a big problem when it comes to brain cells. You see, intracranial pressure if not treated promptly can cause brain damage, seizures, coma, or even death.
A few baby sips of water here and there are not usually enough to bring about this condition. To help prevent it from happening, never dilute formula with water, and always watch your little one during bath or pool time to make sure they aren't gulping up the water.
Be on the lookout for behavioral changes like confusion, drowsiness, difficulty breathing, muscle cramps or twitching, weakness or nausea, and vomiting. If you notice any of these symptoms, it's possible that your baby has water intoxication and it is essential to seek medical attention from a health professional right away.
Breast milk or formula are foods full of essential nutrients so if your baby fills up on water instead of infant milk they won't be getting all the nutrients they need which can lead to malnutrition. Malnutrition can slow your baby's growth and development because, without enough calories, your baby will be unable to gain weight sufficiently.
For breastfed babies, milk supply follows the simple rules of supply and demand. When you are breastfeeding, your body will produce milk based on how often your baby nurses.
The problem with offering your baby water instead of breast milk is that it may signal your body to produce less and less breast milk. A reduced breast milk supply can mean your baby will have to stop breastfeeding early resulting in unwanted early weaning.
We all know that babies are tiny, but what does this mean when unclean water comes into play? Well when babies drink water, they drink more for their size compared to older children or adults. This means that they are at a greater risk of harm from water contaminants. Not only can unclean water cause babies to become sick but it can also lead to diarrhea, dehydration, and malnutrition.
When we think of hot weather, the fear of dehydration is not far behind. While heat makes hydration even more important, if your baby is under 6 months of age then water is not the solution.
As we mentioned earlier, though it bears repeating, your baby gets all the hydration they need from their breast milk or formula. Breast milk itself is not only highly nutritious but it's also loaded with H2O standing at a whopping 80% water!
If a hot summer's day has you worried about your baby getting enough fluids, the best thing you can do is to offer them breastmilk or formula on demand.
So how can you tell if your baby is sufficiently hydrated? It comes down to the diaper. A good sign that your baby is hydrated is if you get the not-so-fun task of cleaning up 6 to 8 wet diapers over a 24-hour period. It may not be the most glamorous of tasks but it means you can rest assured you've got a healthy and hydrated baby.
Dehydration happens when we don't have enough fluids to carry out our bodily functions business as usual. Interestingly, dehydration doesn't just come down to not getting enough water, it's also important that our bodies have enough electrolytes. We can become dehydrated by not having sufficient water intake, sufficient electrolytes, or by having low levels of both.
Infants and young children are susceptible to becoming dehydrated. In the case of babies, they can quickly become dehydrated when sick, when having trouble feeding, or if they overheat, vomit, or have diarrhea.
Typically young babies become dehydrated if they don't take in enough fluids to replace what's lost throughout their day through things like crying, urination, or bowel movements. On the other hand, older babies and children are more likely to become dehydrated due to illness.
Here's a quick overview of what you should be on the lookout for if you suspect your little one may be dehydrated...
Less than 6 wet diapers in 24 hours
Crying with little to no tears
Dark yellow pee
Dry skin & cracked lips
Lack of energy or unusual sleepiness
Cold feet & hands
Sunken Fontanelle (The ''soft spot'' on top of babies' heads)
You must call your child's doctor as soon as you notice any symptoms of dehydration in your baby as things can become serious quickly. The treatment for infant dehydration will depend on your baby's age and the cause and severity of the condition.
It's important not to give your baby rehydration fluid, electrolyte solution, or water without seeking professional medical advice first. Some of these drinks may not be age-appropriate and the wrong liquid or the wrong amount of liquid can make things worse.
The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) does not include juice or tea in their list of recommended drinks for infants and children. The CDC says that children should not drink any kind of fruit or vegetable juice before 12 months of age.
Juices and fruit juice, in particular, have high levels of sugar that babies and kids don't need. After the 12-month mark, you can introduce your little one to 4 ounces or less of 100% fruit juice with no added sugar. However, fiber-rich whole fruits are a better choice for your child than juices are.
Learn more: Baby Snacks: Best Healthy and Nutritious Options
In terms of tea, most of them contain caffeine which can negatively impact your child's sleep, behavior, and development. All caffeinated drinks should be avoided as there is no established safe limit for young children ages 2 or less. While there are caffeine-free herbal teas, these may not be sterile enough and can contain harmful compounds to children.
The most important thing to remember from this article is that before babies turn 6 months, they should not be drinking water. Breast milk and formula are already perfectly good at keeping your baby hydrated, even in hot weather. Giving your baby too much water or water while they are too young can cause water intoxication, malnutrition, early weaning, or infection. Other drinks like juice and tea are also not suitable.
Beginning at 6 months, you can offer your baby tiny bits of water but not more than 4 to 8 ounces. Your baby only needs water once they turn 1, at this point, stick to giving your baby 8 to 32 ounces of water. While babies and children are susceptible to becoming dehydrated, water is not a solution to this problem. If you see signs of dehydration in your little one, call your child's pediatrician and follow their advice.
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends evidenced in babies, it is in no way medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes to your child’s formula, and when choosing your child’s formula. Always consult your pediatrician prior to making any decisions about your child’s diet or if you notice any changes in your child.
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When can my baby have water to drink?. NCT. October, 2017.
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Water intoxication is real, but rare—Here's what to know. Parents. 2020.
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Food and drinks to avoid or limit. CDC. July 2, 2021.
Agustina Fernandez is a medical doctor, who graduated from Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, in Argentina. She has experience working in an emergency room of a public hospital, where she helped many patients with urgent diseases. However, her true passion are children and she is planning on doing her specialization degree in Pediatrics soon. In the past year, she has become interested in researching about infant nutrition, including breastfeeding, infant formula and food in the first years of little ones' lives.
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Dr. Hsu received his medical degree from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University.
Dr. Hsu did research in MRI neuroimaging research of fetal brains at Boston Children’s Hospital, an affiliated hospital of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hsu is currently a full-time medical writer and consultant.
Outside of the medical profession, Dr. Hsu loves to write, learn new languages, and travel