Water Intoxication in Babies: Everything You Need to Know

While water intoxication does not happen often, it's vital to be aware of what causes this deadly condition. Know signs to watch for if your baby does drink a large amount of water.

young girl drinking glass of water
Photo: Getty

Knowing how important water is for a healthy body, it's understandable that we want to encourage our kids to drink plenty of it. So it's only natural to want to introduce your baby to water as soon as it's recommended by their pediatrician. But can your baby drink too much water? The American Academy of Pediatrics says yes, warning that introducing water too early or giving your baby too much water can actually cause a hazardous condition called water intoxication.

Before you start panicking though, know that it takes a lot of water in order to cause this harmful condition. There's no need to break into a sweat because your baby's taken a huge gulp of bath water. However, it is always a good idea to be fully informed, so we've turned to the experts to learn more about this scary-sounding condition.

What is Water Intoxication?

Simply put, water intoxication is a condition that can occur when someone drinks too much water. When consumed in excess, water can dilute the concentration of serum electrolytes in the body, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium, says Christopher Carrubba, M.D., founder and CEO of StudyMed, a medical education consulting firm. Especially in small children, taking in too much water can lead to hyponatremia, or decreased sodium. Once that happens, it can cause cells within the body to begin to swell with water. When cells in your baby's brain swell, trouble starts. It can lead to an increased intracranial pressure, which can cause brain damage if not corrected in time.

What Are the Signs of Water Intoxication?

Suppose your little one starts vomiting one night after a bath: How can you tell if it's cause for concern or simply a nasty tummy bug from daycare?

"Look for other symptoms consistent with acute onset of neurological changes; things like dizziness, lethargy, confusion, and behavioral changes," says Carrubba. Other signs of water toxicity can include: completely clear urine, lots of wet diapers (more than 8 per day), and swelling of the face, arms or legs.

How to Prevent Water Intoxication

A little swallow here, a little sip there. While it takes a lot of water to cause water intoxication in babies, you should be extra vigilant during bath and pool time to ensure your baby isn't gulping down all that fascinating liquid stuff. Below are some tips you can follow to keep your child's water intake at a safe level.

  • Always follow AAP guidelines on when to introduce water to babies and how much to give based on their age.
  • Never dilute infant formula or breast milk with water.
  • Always supervise closely when your baby is in the bath or pool.
  • Avoid allowing your baby to play with cups in the bath or pool until they can understand not to drink from them.

A special note on infant formula and breast milk

The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses that babies under 6 months of age shouldn't be given any water at all, maintaining that formula or breast milk provides all the hydration they need. While it may seem harmless, practices like diluting formula or breast milk with water can lead to death from water intoxication in infants. That's because their kidneys aren't yet mature, so giving them too much water causes their bodies to go into hyponatremia and disrupt brain function, says Carla Laos, MD of Hazel Health. If you're struggling to afford formula and/or cannot find baby formula, talk to your doctor to see if there are resources available to help you.

How to Fix Overhydration

If your little one truly has taken in too much water and/or you feel they're acting funny, the best course of action is to head straight to the emergency room to get them prompt medical attention. Water intoxication treatment will vary based on how low a baby's sodium levels are. Carrubba says, "mild cases can be managed simply by stopping all water intake, since healthy kidneys will be able to eliminate the excess water.

In more severe cases, patients may require treatment with diuretics in order to increase urination and water elimination. Another option? A saline solution that can be given in order to increase sodium levels in the body.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles