Too much water raises seizure risk in babies

Published on May 15, 2008 at 1:55 PM · No Comments

It's a recurrent summer-time scenario in the pediatric emergency room and doctors from Johns Hopkins Children's are sounding the alarm on it: An otherwise healthy infant is brought in by panicked parents after suffering a seizure, which turns out to be caused by drinking too much water.

Pediatricians at Hopkins Children's see at least three or four such cases every summer, and while the seizures are benign and have no lasting effect on a child's health, they are quite dramatic and completely preventable, doctors say.

"Babies need extra fluids in the hot weather, but straight water is not one of them," says pediatrician Allen Walker, M.D., head of the Emergency Department at Hopkins Children's. "A parent's natural instinct is to give the baby water to prevent dehydration, but too much water can disrupt the delicate balance in a baby's body, leading to water intoxication. Before you know it, the baby is seizing."

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, 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:

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