Junkfood Science: Water babies: A health advisory for parents

June 03, 2008

Water babies: A health advisory for parents

Pediatricians at Johns Hopkins Children’s Medical Center sounded the alarm recently that water isn’t a healthful beverage to give babies under one year of age. Every year, they see healthy children being rushed to their emergency room suffering seizures after having been given water to drink. It takes very little water to lead to water intoxication in babies and tiny tots. As little as three ounces a day could be too much water for a child under a year old, said Dr. Allen J.Walker, M.D., head of the Emergency Department at Hopkins Children’.

As their notice said:

Too much water dilutes sodium in the blood and flushes it out of the body, thus altering brain activity, which can lead to a seizure. Infants under 1 year of age may be more prone to these types of seizures than older children because a young infant’s diet does not contain enough food sources to replenish the lost sodium. Also, an infant’s immature kidneys cannot flush out excess water fast enough, causing a dangerous buildup of water in the body.

Breast milk and formula are the best way to keep a child under 1 year of age who is not eating solid foods hydrated, pediatrician Allen Walker says, and straight water should be avoided. Over-diluted formula can lead to water intoxication as well. Electrolyte-enriched pediatric drinks are not recommended for routine hydration.

Symptoms of water intoxication in an infant include:

· changes in mental status, i.e., unusual irritability or drowsiness

· low body temperature, usually 97 degrees or less

· facial swelling or puffiness

· seizures

While these seizures generally do not lead to permanent health problems, they are preventable. A parent’s natural instinct in hot weather is to give their infant water to prevent dehydration, said Dr. Walker, but if they need extra fluid, breast milk or formula is best.

It’s not just the heat

There are two other serious reasons today’s parents may be increasingly inclined to dilute their babies’ formula or give them water: financial difficulties and food insecurity, and concerns about fat babies.

For years, the CDC and medical centers have been reporting seizures among poor mothers who dilute formula and give babies water trying to make formula stretch until the next paycheck or WIC allotment. With food insecurity increasing among American families and children, this is a renewed concern among healthcare professionals. Food pantries across the country are currently reporting being in urgent need of formula.

The obsession over thin babies is a growing factor behind babies being underfed or receiving diluted formula (or toddlers being given diluted milk) and water. Few healthcare professionals probably have time to read the online parenting forums and the advice being shared on these boards, but it’s frightening how many educated mothers are worried about allowing their babies to eat when they’re hungry over concerns of baby fat.

Increasing reports are being heard of parents trying to underfeed their babies, diluting formula or giving them water to sooth their hunger cries, thinking they can prevent their baby from becoming fat. Not only will this not prevent obesity, it puts their babies at risk for seizures. More critically, it puts babies at risk for nutritional shortfalls and stunted growth and development. Babies naturally regulate the calories and nutrients their bodies need for growth and health. Their hunger cries mean they need to eat.

It’s understandable why growing numbers of parents are tempted to take such measures. The take home message parents are getting at every turn is that baby fat and puppy fat on their children threatens their futures and must be avoided at all costs. Frightening news stories warn of the crisis of large babies (that proves to not be a crisis at all), parents of fat children are being threatened with child abuse, parenting literature offers advice for “fat-proofing” babies, and tiny tot weight and exercise programs are opening up everywhere.

A picture says a thousand words

Another example of messages naturally fueling these concerns appears in today’s news from Europe. It claims that obesity must be battled earlier in life. The European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee has just issued new childhood obesity initiatives that call for “an earlier start to measures to prevent obesity.”

The report, written by Alessandro Foglietta of Italy, claims that “obesity and diet-related diseases are approaching epidemic proportions” and says that children’s diets should be low in salt, sugar, fat and calories, and emphasize fruits and vegetables, to ward off “this scourge.” It also says stakeholders should make fighting obesity their priority, restrict unhealthy foods, mandate color-coded food labeling to identify “good and bad” choices, and ban transfats. “School curricula should be designed to ensure that physical exercise and a balanced diet become part of every child’s behaviour.”

There was no examination of the harms of these proposals or of the effects of instilling body weight concerns in children from toddler age. The face of the youngster in the photo, who would likely be classified as “obese” according to the BMI growth charts, spoke volumes about the message being given children. Mr. Foglietta is the treasurer of the Union for Europe, with a diploma in accounting, according to his curriculum vitae.

The evidence in support of such public health initiatives for babies and children were examined here.

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