The dangers of giving water to babies
I was so saddened to see the story of a 10-week-old infant who died as a result of water toxicity. Still under investigation, the incident allegedly involved a mother using water to dilute her breast milk because she wasn’t producing enough to satisfy her baby and she couldn’t afford formula to supplement it.
Through the heartbreak of the situation, several questions were raised. What is water toxicity? When can you start giving a baby water? What resources are available to help parents who can’t afford supplemental supplies?
Water toxicity happens when the normal levels of sodium and electrolytes in the body are diluted. When sodium levels and electrolytes are low, it can lead to seizures, coma, brain damage and even death. Elizabeth Doyle, M.D., director of lactation services for Norton Healthcare, explained that infants (ages 0 to 6 months) should never be given water.
“During the early months, all an infant needs is breast milk or formula,” Dr. Doyle said.
Not producing enough breast milk and needing to supplement feedings for newborns occurs occasionally, according to Dr. Doyle.
“In situations where the baby isn’t feeding long enough or mom isn’t producing enough breast milk, there may need to be additional milk supply acquired,” Dr. Doyle said. “Mom can pump the extra milk for later, offer more frequent feedings, seek donor milk or use formula to increase the baby’s intake.”
Dr. Doyle advises that mothers stay in close communication with their pediatrician and lactation consultants, who can help make the best choices for the situation.
“If you have concerns that your baby isn’t getting enough to eat, talk to your medical provider,” she said. “Your baby’s pediatrician or your obstetrician can offer support during this trying time. And you can especially lean on a lactation consultant, who can coach you on breastfeeding techniques, provide nutritional information to help increase milk production and offer encouragement on things that are going right or wrong.”
In discussing the use of water in a baby’s nutritional routine, Dr. Doyle recommended that water should be limited to sips from a cup when the child is old enough to drink from a transitional or “sippy” cup.
“Your baby’s kidneys start to mature around six months,” said Dr. Doyle. “The kidneys filter fluid and wastes from the blood to form urine.”
Resources are available to help cover the cost of supplemental formula, such as the WIC Program. This national, government-funded program provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, nutritional education and breastfeeding promotion and support to low-income pregnant women and new moms, and to infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk. The WIC prescreening tool can determine if you may be eligible for WIC benefits. The prescreening tool is not an application; to apply you must make an appointment at your local WIC agency.
For more information on breastfeeding, assistance or to find out about Norton Healthcare’s free breastfeeding classes, call the Lactation Help Line at (502) 446-MOMS or visit our webpage.
Elizabeth M. Doyle, M.D., director of lactation services for Norton Healthcare, is an internal medicine/pediatrics physician at Norton Community Medical Associates – Shepherdsville, 115 Huston Drive, Suite 1, Shepherdsville, KY 40165; (502) 955-7311