Most children in the United States do not drink enough water, and when it's hot outside, they may need to drink even more.
But getting children to drink water can be a challenge. We spoke with medical experts, coaches, camp counselors and parents to find out how much water kids should drink in the summer, and how adults can help make sure they're getting enough.
How much water should kids drink on a hot day?
The Institute of Medicine offers recommendations that children ages 4 to 8 should drink about 2 quarts a day. That amount goes up as they get older, with 3.5 quarts a day recommended for teenage boys and 2.4 quarts a day for teenage girls. But that doesn't necessarily apply to a child playing tag on a hot asphalt playground.
"When children are outside and it's hot and humid, they need to drink more," says Stella Volpe, chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University and member of the panel who set the recommendations. "Their sweating mechanisms aren't as well developed as in adults so they could tend to overheat faster."
Although it may seem to some that parents, teachers and coaches are hyper-conscious about kids' water needs today, research shows that most American children are mildly dehydrated.
There is no exact calculation for figuring out how much water is enough as kids run around faster and the temperature climbs higher. The good news, according to Dr. Kelsey Logan, director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, is that in most cases kids will drink when they need to if water is available.
That makes sense to Sue DiPietro, a girls field hockey coach based in Westminster, Md. "I honestly have never felt like any of the girls have overexerted themselves to the point of dehydration or exhaustion," she says.
According to DiPietro, the first- through eighth-graders she coaches look forward to the water breaks she schedules roughly every 15 minutes during practices and games.
Still, if children don't have regular water breaks built into the day they can forget to drink, Logan says. "Some kids may get caught up in what they're doing and may exercise for a long time without even thinking to drink."
That's when parents, coaches and camp counselors need to step in and make sure that kids are drinking enough.
Does juice count?
Yes! All liquids in beverages and foods are included in a child's daily fluid intake. "Watermelon, soups, a milkshake, all count toward water needs because there's water in all those foods," says Volpe. "But we do want children to choose healthier beverages."
In most cases, medical experts agree that water is the best drink for hydrating kids. "Many parents think the first thing they should reach for is the sports drinks," says Dr. Patrice Evers, a pediatrician at Tulane University School of Medicine. "But really it should be water, unless your child is in the more elite athlete category."
How can parents tell if kids aren't drinking enough water?
"Decreasing frequency of urination is the first sign that kids could be becoming dehydrated," says Evers. She advises parents to check if their kids are urinating every four to five hours.
She also suggests that parents look for other signs of dehydration like darker urine, dry lips, a headache or a fast heart rate. A kid's demeanor might also be a clue. "A child who was previously happily playing and now just wants to sit down could be dehydrated," she explains.
Logan also adds that parents of athletes may want to consider weighing a child before and after a game to find out how much fluid the child lost and needs to replace. This strategy is especially important for teenagers, who sweat more heavily. "Kids can lose several pounds over the course of a game," she says.
How can adults encourage water breaks for kids?
The No. 1 rule is to always make sure there is plenty of water available. For children and teenagers who need a little extra encouragement, here are some tips:
- Coaches should remind athletes to drink by scheduling water breaks every 15 to 20 minutes during practices, Logan says.
- Parents can offer other fluid options in addition to water, Evers says, like homemade ice pops made from fresh fruit or juices.
- For younger children, it's all about the cup, says Laila Al-Arian, a documentary filmmaker based in McLean, Va., and mother of two boys ages 3 years and 18 months. "My boys have certain preferred sippy cups and I try to put water in the ones they like the most." She also adds that when her boys see other kids on the playground drinking water, they want to drink it, too. "Peer pressure is really huge," she says.
- Hydration packs can help, too, according to Erin Saunders, the education programs director who helps run Thorne Summer Camp in Boulder and Littleton, Colo. She says that the kids who have water backpacks with straws drink the most water on their own. "It's just more accessible. It's always right there," she says. For others, the counselors check water bottles every hour to make sure the kids are drinking enough.
So parents, take heart. The solution can be as sweet and simple as a strawberry fruit pop or a favorite sippy cup.