Staying hydrated is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for youth athletes.
“If you do not have enough fluids, your electrolytes, sodium and calcium are going to be out of balance and it can strain your cardiovascular system,” says UNC Health registered dietitian Elizabeth Watt.
Dehydration is one of the biggest dangers in kids’ sports—it increases the risk of other heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
“And from an athletic standpoint, your athletic performance is going to be diminished if you’re not hydrated,” Watt says.
We talked to Watt about how you can help your child stay hydrated, while playing sports and at rest.
The Sweat Factor: Dehydration Is Harder to Spot with Young Athletes
For adults, a common cue to drink more water is when they sweat. Most children and teens do not sweat as much as adults, so they may not realize they should drink more fluids to replenish the fluids they have lost—until it’s too late and they become dehydrated.
“They don’t sweat as much so then they’re not as thirsty, but they need to replenish those fluids to make sure they are staying above dehydration level,” Watt says.
Signs of dehydration include headache, fatigue, and decreased urination or dark yellow urine. Even mild dehydration can affect your child and make them lethargic and irritable.
How to Help Your Child Stay Hydrated
When it comes to staying hydrated, pay attention to how much water your youth athlete is getting before, during and after exercise.
An hour before exercise, your athlete should consume about 16 ounces of water—two 8-ounce cups.
“A gulp of water is about an ounce, but you don’t have to gulp it down one hour before—you can sip on it during that hour,” Watt says.
During exercise, drink about 4 ounces every 20 minutes. Don’t worry—you don’t have to set an alarm to make sure your athlete does this (though you can). Just make sure your child drinks water during breaks. If your athlete is going to be outside running for a long period, they might need to carry some fluids with them or stop at any available water stations.
After a game or exercising, your youth athlete should drink about 16 to 24 ounces of water.
“If a child is heavily sweating or exercising outside in the summer heat, you’re going to want to make sure it’s more than that,” Watt says. “Instead of two to three cups maybe do 3 ½ cups and see how they feel.”
Too much water can lead to overhydration. If you have more fluid than your body really needs, your body is going to let you know.
“You’ll experience GI distress—you’ll feel crampy or nauseous, and may vomit or have diarrhea,” Watt says. “Then, your performance is going to go downhill. You won’t be able to finish the race or get back into the game.”
Other Ways to Keep Youth Athletes Hydrated
While it is very important to drink water to stay hydrated, foods that contain water are also good to have on hand for your youth athlete—especially if they don’t like drinking water.
“If you eat things like watermelon or grapes or berries, there’s high water content in those foods and you’re still getting hydration and fluids that way,” Watt says.
Another trick to help your child reach for a water bottle is to give them something salty, such as a cracker or pretzel.
“You don’t have to totally load up on salt, but offer some salty things to trigger that thirst mechanism for kids to drink,” Watt says.
Squeezing a lemon or lime into their water bottle also triggers children to drink more because it adds some flavor.
“You can even add Gatorade powder or something similar,” Watt says. “It’s going to get the kids to drink more, and it’s certainly not going to harm them to have a little bit of that added sugar if they’re out there running around on the field.”