Infants and young children have a higher proportion of body water than adults. They are also less heat tolerant and more susceptible to dehydration, especially when being physically active and in hot climates. Encouraging children to drink fluids regularly is particularly important in this context as children can be so involved in what they are doing that they forget to drink. Patterns of drinking behaviour appear to be established early in childhood, so it is important that young children get used to drinking water and a range of other appropriate drinks in order to maintain hydration.
It is important that children drink regularly throughout the day to stay properly hydrated. However, drinking fluid is not necessarily seen as a priority by children and may also be viewed as boring and inconvenient. Teachers, parents/guardians and care providers need to make sure that there are opportunities for drinking throughout the day and that children are encouraged to make use of these opportunities.
*adolescents of 14 years and older are considered by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as adults with respect to adequate water intake so this guide is aimed at children aged 4-13 years
How much do children need?
The amount of fluid a child needs depends on many factors including their age, their gender, the weather and how much physical activity they do, but generally they should aim to drink about 6-8 glasses of fluid per day (on top of the water provided by food in their diet). Younger children need relatively smaller drinks (e.g. 120–150 ml serving) and older children need larger drinks (e.g. 250–300 ml serving).
What are the most appropriate drinks for children?
When choosing drinks for children, it is important to be aware that although they all provide water, and some also contain essential vitamins and minerals, they may also provide sugar and therefore energy (calories/kilojoules). Energy in drinks contributes to our daily energy intake in the same way as food. Getting too much energy from drinks over time could cause weight gain. In addition, drinking sugar-sweetened drinks too often can potentially lead to tooth decay, especially if consumed frequently between meals or if teeth are not brushed regularly with fluoride toothpaste. Dental guidelines recommend consuming sugar-containing food and drinks on no more than four occasions per day. It is also important to be aware that some drinks are acidic (e.g. fruit juice, squash and some carbonated drinks) and that this may cause dental erosion (damage to tooth enamel) if they are drunk often. Some drinks such as tea, coffee and some soft drinks may also contain caffeine which is a mild stimulant. Too much caffeine can make children irritable and keep them awake at night if consumed in the evening, so it is advisable not to give children caffeine-containing drinks at this time.
Drinking water is a good choice for children throughout the day, and especially after physical activity and in hot weather. It hydrates without providing extra energy or risking harm to teeth.
Milk is also a good choice as it contains lots of essential nutrients such as protein, B vitamins and calcium, as well as being a source of water. It also contains saturated fat so it is a good idea for children to choose semi-skimmed milk (less than 2% fat), 1% fat or skimmed (less than 0.1% fat) milks (skimmed milk should not be given to under 5s). Soya drinks and other non-dairy alternatives are lower in saturated fat but also lower in some vitamins and minerals, and it is a good idea to choose those that have been fortified, especially with calcium. Some versions are sweetened so should be drunk less often. Milky drinks containing sugar such as milkshakes, hot chocolate and malted drinks can provide water and nutrients and are often more popular with children than plain milk. They should be drunk in moderation and without adding extra sugar where possible, and can be made up at home using low calorie versions and reduced fat milks.
Fruit juices provide water plus some vitamins and minerals. One 150ml glass of 100% fruit juice counts as one portion of a child’s 5 A DAY, so when buying fruit juices check the labels and choose 100% fruit juice (some juice drinks can contain as little as 5% fruit juice and a lot of added sugar). The sugar naturally present in fruit juice still adds energy to the diet and juices can also be acidic, so can harm teeth if drunk too frequently. It is better for teeth to dilute fruit juice with water and to drink fruit juice only at meal times
Smoothies provide water, nutrients, and may also contain pureed fruit or vegetables, which adds fibre. Smoothies that contain at least 150ml of fruit juice and 80g crushed or pulped fruit/vegetable count as two portions of a child’s 5 A DAY. However, smoothies can contain more sugar (and therefore calories) than fruit juice and can be acidic, so could potentially harm teeth if drunk often. It is better for teeth to drink smoothies only at meal times.
Low calorie soft drinks provide water without providing much energy or many nutrients (although some may have vitamins and minerals added). They can be acidic and can erode dental enamel if consumed frequently. Be aware that some low calorie soft drinks may contain caffeine.
Soft drinks containing sugar such as some carbonated drinks and squashes provide water but they can be high in energy and the sugar can potentially cause tooth decay if they are consumed frequently, especially between meals. They may also be acidic, so frequent consumption can increase the risk of dental erosion. It’s a good idea to limit consumption of standard sugar-containing soft drinks and to choose lower sugar or sugar-free (low calorie) versions instead, or dilute fruit juice with plain or carbonated water. Be aware that some soft drinks may contain caffeine.
Tea and coffee contain caffeine, which is a stimulant. Caffeine is naturally present in coffee and in smaller amounts in tea. Coffee is probably best avoided by younger children, but weak tea is okay in moderation (1-2 cups/day). It is better for children to drink decaffeinated versions of tea and coffee and to encourage the consumption of these beverages with milk but with no added sugar.
Practical tips to keep active children hydrated
- Ensure children have a drink before school i.e. with breakfast, and before and during playtime.
- Parents, teachers and guardians should offer drinks regularly, especially in hot environments.
- Always have drinks that children enjoy available. Water, milk, juice, low sugar soft-drinks and other fluids can all help meet a child’s hydration needs.
- Remember that many foods have a high water content and can also contribute to fluid intake. i.e. fruit, vegetables, yogurt.
- Always pack a water bottle in a school bag or lunchbox for children heading off to school/outings/other activities.