Water is something we are almost obsessed with as adults, with the fear of dehydration hanging over us like a constant companion. It is understandable for new parents to have similar concerns about their newborn baby. It might even seem unintuitive to deprive a baby of access to water. But health authorities, from the World Health Organization to the UK National Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics, are unanimous in their view on water intake by babies. It simply isn’t needed for a newborn. So when is it safe to start giving your baby water? And why avoid it at all?
Newborns Don’t Need Water
Breast milk has very high water content – in fact, water makes up about 80 percent of the milk, particularly the initial milk your baby gets at the start of each feed. That’s why breast milk is great to quench a newborn or young infant’s thirst while also giving them the nutrition they need.1 What’s more, the breast milk contains antibodies that protect the baby from infection even as their own immune system develops.2
As the UK National Health Service explains, breast milk gives your baby the perfect balance of nutrients their little body needs to develop and flourish. In the absence of proper milk supply, infant formula may also be needed in some cases. Formula tries to replicate as closely as possible the nutrient profile of breast milk. Of course, if you can, breastfeeding remains the best option.3
Water, unfortunately, contains none of the proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, enzymes, or antibodies of breast milk nor the nutrition of formula. It simply serves the purpose of quenching an infant’s thirst and nothing more. And this is often at the cost of other nutrition and even at the risk of infection, as you will see in the following sections.
Giving Water To A Young Infant Has Health Risks
Potential problems of giving a baby water include:
Diarrhea: One big reason to avoid giving your baby water is to lower the risk of an infection. If the water or the container in which it is given to them is even mildly contaminated, the young baby may develop diarrhea.4
Malnutrition: Even if you are sure that the water is absolutely pristine, you could run the risk of your baby becoming malnourished. Why? Because the water fills up their tiny stomach and may cause them to drink less breast milk or formula than normal. Some babies may even wean themselves off breastfeeding earlier than they should, putting them at risk of malnutrition.5
Water intoxication: Another danger of giving a baby water is that they could develop water intoxication, a potentially dangerous condition which may even cause seizures and be marked by declining brain activity, besides making a child drowsy and irritable. Physicians from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center explain that even the youngest infant has a thirst reflex which will cause them to drink if offered water. Unfortunately, the newborn’s kidneys are not yet strong enough to deal with excessive water intake. The result? Sodium is purged along with excess water through the urine, bringing on the symptoms mentioned earlier.6
Reduced maternal milk supply: This is another issue with decreased milk intake by the baby when they are given water. Your own milk supply may reduce as the body produces less milk as the baby consumes less. This exacerbates the malnutrition risk.7
Start Giving Water Only When Your Baby Is About 6 Months
Breastfed babies do not need to be given water until they begin consuming solids.8 And because health authorities recommend introducing solid foods at about 6 months, it follows that water may be given at this stage.
[pullquote]Till 6 months of age, your baby does not need to be given water. Breastmilk or formula will supply all the water the baby needs to grow and to take care of their thirst.[/pullquote]
What If It’s Hot Outside?
The World Health Organization warns against giving babies younger than 6 months water even when it is a very hot day. That’s because of the potential risk of infection or malnutrition.9
However, there’s a bit of give on this in some segments of the pediatric community. They continue to maintain that breastmilk need not be supplemented with water even on a hot day. But if your baby is formula-fed and is losing a lot of water by sweating, you can give them small sips of water between feeds. But this should never exceed 2–4 ounces. But here again, go easy. In fact, you can very well make do with some extra formula instead of water.10 11
Prep The Water Correctly For Your Baby After 6 Months
When you do eventually give your baby water, be sure it is cooled down and not piping hot or icy cold.
To make formula for infants under 6 months, always use tap water that is boiled freshly and then cooled. Same applies if you decide to give your formula-fed baby sips of water when it’s hot.12
Water for babies over 6 months: If your baby is over 6 months old, the water need not be boiled if you are sure the water supply is not contaminated in any way.13
Avoid bottled water or check the labels: Do not give an infant bottled water from the store. Tempting as it may be for its convenience, this water usually contains minerals like sodium and sulfate in higher quantities than a baby should have. If you don’t have a choice, read the label and ensure that sodium/Na level is below 200 mg per liter and sulphate/SO/SO4 is below 250 mg per liter.14
Introduce Other Fluids Also Only After 6 Months
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives. After this, complementary foods like purees or some juices and other fluids may be introduced, followed by some solids, but breast milk must stay on the menu till they are at least 12 months old. Beyond this, breastfeeding is a choice that individual mothers and babies will need to make for themselves.15
According to the AAP, other milk like cow’s milk must strictly be avoided until a child is at least 1 year old. This is because cow’s milk can’t be digested as easily or may not be as balanced as breastmilk or formula. After your baby is 1, you can start them on whole fat milk. After age 2, you could consider moving to semi-skimmed milk if your child is thriving and eating a healthy, robust, balanced diet. Skimmed milk is best avoided for kids under 5 years because young bodies need the extra fat. Fruit juices and smoothies should ideally be given only after the child is 1 year.16
|↑1, ↑4, ↑5, ↑7, ↑9||Why can’t we give water to a breastfeeding baby before the 6 months, even when it is hot?. World Health Organization.|
|↑2||What’s in Breast Milk?. American Pregnancy Association.|
|↑3, ↑14, ↑16||Drinks and cups for your baby. National Health Service.|
|↑6||Drinking water can be harmful to smallest babies. Reuters.|
|↑8, ↑10, ↑12, ↑13||Pregnancy and baby. National Health Service.|
|↑11||Is it safe for babies to drink water?. New York Times.|
|↑15||AAP Reaffirms Breastfeeding Guidelines. American Academy of Pediatrics.|