Children and Electrolytes: Everything You Need to Know

boy drinking

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Your child has been playing hard all afternoon in the summer sun. They seem happy until the car ride home when they complain of feeling extra thirsty and “weird.” You give them some water, but they still seem tired and just generally not themselves.

You wonder if maybe you should give your child an electrolyte drink. You’ve heard that sometimes water alone isn’t enough to rehydrate, and that restoring the balance of electrolytes—essential minerals such as sodium, calcium, and potassium that are often lost while sweating—is important. After all, you yourself have consumed electrolyte drinks after sweating it out at the gym.

Still, you know that kids aren’t mini-adults and so what might work for dehydration for an adult might not be advised for a child. So what should you do? How common is it for kids to lose electrolytes during the summer heat? Can you give children electrolytes, and if so, in what form?

We connected with pediatricians and nutritionists to answer parents’ most frequently asked questions about electrolytes and children. Here's what you need to know.

When to Call a Doctor

If your child is dealing with dehydration, and certainly if they have any symptoms of severe dehydration—such as dizziness, extreme sleepiness, sunken eyes, or decreased urination—you should contact your healthcare provider for immediate assistance.

What Are Electrolytes?

Simply put, electrolytes are essential minerals found in your body’s fluids. They support many important bodily functions, including balancing the levels of water in your body. Electrolytes also balance your body’s pH, transport nutrients into your cells, and ensure that your heart, brain nerves, and muscles function properly.

In other words, we all need electrolytes to survive, and children are no exception says Jan Bonhoeffer, MD, a pediatrician and global expert on infectious disease vaccine safety.

“Every child needs electrolytes to live,” Dr. Bonhoeffer says, explaining that the most important electrolytes for children and adults include sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Children get electrolytes naturally from the foods they eat, explains Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a medical consultant at Mom Loves Best. Common food sources for electrolytes include fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocado, oranges, strawberries, melon, and watermelon, she says. Under normal circumstances, a healthy diet with adequate amounts of water is all it takes to meet your daily electrolyte quota.

When Do Kids Need Electrolytes?

Children need their electrolytes replaced anytime they have lost excessive fluids. Thankfully, there are only a few instances when this might happen.

“Your child may need additional electrolytes if they are having vomiting and diarrhea,” Dr. Poinsett explains. “They may also need electrolytes if they are profusely sweating, as some electrolytes are lost during extreme exercise.”

When it comes to strenuous exercise, Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, a registered dietician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), recommends considering electrolyte supplementation if your child has been exercising in the heat for an hour or more. However, doing lighter activities in the heat doesn’t usually mean you need to give your child electrolytes.

Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD

If a child is doing normal activity in the heat—such as playing at the pool, playing at a playground, or walking around an amusement park—and they are eating and drinking water, then a drink with electrolyte replacements is likely, not necessary.

— Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD

But it’s not just what activity your child has been participating in. When it comes to deciding if electrolytes are necessary, you should also look at your child, and watch for signs of dehydration, says Dr. Bonhoeffer.

The first sign to look for is decreased urination, he explains. For babies and toddlers, this would mean fewer wet diapers than usual. Other signs to watch for include fewer tears, sunken eyes, and a sunken fontanelle—the soft spot on a young child’s scalp.

Signs of dehydration in older children may include a dry tongue or mouth, less frequent urination, a rapid heart rate, and signs of extreme fatigue, including low energy, listlessness, and extra fussiness.

Be sure to call your healthcare provider as the first sign of dehydration. In fact, research shows that just a 4% deficit in fluids can cause headaches, irritability, sleepiness, increased temperature, and rapid breathing.

Potential Risks of Too Many Electrolytes

You should always consult with your pediatrician before giving your child electrolyte supplements, especially if they have been ill or showing signs of severe dehydration. Your doctor can help you determine how much electrolyte supplementation you should offer your child, and how often.

Morgyn Clair, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist for Sprint Kitchen, says it’s unlikely that you can harm your child by giving them too many electrolytes.

“It is typically very difficult to ‘overdose’ or to get too many electrolytes, due to their nature of being water-soluble,” she explains.

Plus, when too many electrolytes are consumed, the body naturally clears out the excess. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other concerns with electrolyte supplementation. Dr. Poinsett warns that many electrolyte drinks, especially the ones branded as sports drinks, have ingredients that aren’t suited to young children.

Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

Electrolyte drinks that contain caffeine can induce irritability. Other electrolyte drinks may contain excess sugar that can cause cavities.

— Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

How Often Should Kids Drink Electrolytes?

Reed advises that consuming electrolyte drinks should be limited to times when these drinks are needed, such as during intense endurance activities, fluid loss from vomiting or diarrhea, or profuse sweating from heat exposure. In these instances, Reed recommends you consult with your child’s pediatrician for the specifics of how long to give them electrolyte drinks and how often.

What Electrolyte Drinks Are Best For Kids?

Generally, you want to shy away from any electrolyte drinks that contain caffeine, have high sugar content, or other added ingredients, says Dr. Poinsett. She recommends electrolyte drinks made specifically for children, such as Pedialyte, during times when oral rehydration is necessary. 

Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements, agrees that looking for drinks with less sugar is a good idea, and says that many companies that produce electrolyte drinks are beginning to offer lower sugar or zero sugar products. Additionally, Best says you should look for electrolyte drinks that have a good balance of electrolytes, not just sodium.

In instances where your child has lost electrolytes through exercise—like a long day in the sun at a soccer or lacrosse tournament—Reed recommends giving your child a sports drink. These drinks are designed specifically to replace the electrolytes lost during sweating. And while added sugar is something that Reed also recommends you stay away from, she explains that when it comes to fluid loss from exercise, sometimes a little sugar can actually be useful.

“If the drink is being used in the instance of either high-intensity sport or illness, the child may have likely experienced energy loss as well,” says Reed. “Therefore, depending upon the situation, the child may need the energy or calories provided by the sugar in the electrolyte drink.”

Alternatives to Electrolyte Drinks

It’s important to remember that electrolyte drinks aren’t the only way to replace your child’s electrolytes. Electrolytes are found naturally in your child’s diet, and so boosting those—along with giving your child plain water—may be all it takes to replace lost electrolytes.

You can get electrolytes naturally through fruits like oranges, bananas, and kiwis, says Clair. Vegetables like cucumber and spinach are also good sources of electrolytes.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bonhoeffer says that unsweetened coconut water is a great natural source of electrolytes. Adding in a pinch of salt to the coconut water can help, too. You can also add fruits like watermelon or bananas to lemon water as an alternative.

A Word from Verywell

In cases of severe dehydration, doctors often recommend electrolyte supplementation. But giving your child electrolyte drinks should not be used to treat mild cases of dehydration, such as when they are hanging out and playing in the summer heat. Keeping your child hydrated with plain water and healthy fruits and vegetables should be all it takes to keep their fluids and electrolytes balanced.

At the same time, it’s not always possible for you to determine if your child is suffering from more severe dehydration. If you think something is “off” with your child and dehydration might be the culprit, you should listen to your instincts. A call to your pediatrician is always a good idea, and if you think your child is in immediate danger, visit an urgent care center or the emergency room.

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  1. MedlinePlus. Fluid and electrolyte balance. Updated April 23, 2021. 

  2. Shaheen NA, Alqahtani AA, Assiri H, Alkhodair R, Hussein MA. Public knowledge of dehydration and fluid intake practices: variation by participants' characteristicsBMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):1346. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-6252-5

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