For the first months of a baby’s life, they need either breast milk or baby formula. They don’t drink water. In fact, water can be toxic to an infant’s system — plain water causes their bodies to release sodium along with excess water triggering intoxication and seizures. But at six months, the second they’re able to suck down a sippy cup, water is back on the table. From then until they’re old and grey, it should become the go-to drink. It’s weird to say this, but humans need water. Humans don’t need Gatorade — or fruit juice for that matter. Same goes with kids. Parents seem to forget that the clear stuff exists.
There’s a direct correlation between kids not drinking enough water and health issues, including the ongoing childhood obesity epidemic. It’s gotten to such a degree that experts regularly publish guides to remind parents that water is an incredibly effective method of hydration. The latest of these reminders come from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research and an expert panel representing four key national health and nutrition organizations. The message in their Healthy Drinks. Healthy Kids consensus statement is fantastically simple: kids can, and should, drink water when they are thirsty.
What’s most surprising about the statement is that it wasn’t written in all caps with multiple exclamation points. Partner organizations have been saying kids should just drink water for years. I guess the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association decided that maybe if they all said it at once, in a single document, the message might get through. And while I believe myself to be an optimist, when it comes to this subject, I’m doubtful the consensus statement will move the needle.
Part of the reason parents will eschew water for juices, or “smart waters”, or Gatorade, or some other kind of specialized hydration beverage is because the condition of childhood has been separated from the condition of being a human person. That’s to say that babies and children are now considered specialized creatures with specialized needs. And that means what you put inside and on their bodies has to be optimized for their development. What good is water without an electrolyte, or vitamins, or organic fruit squeezings mixed in?
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Another reason parents bypass water for non-water is that they believe babies are primed for sweet things. And that’s true, to an extent. Any dad who has ever accidentally plopped some breastmilk into his morning cup of coffee (guilty!) knows that it’s super sweet. Also, the stalwart water runner-up — cow’s milk — is also pretty naturally sweet. Therefore, it stands to reason that if you offer a baby something that isn’t sweet, they will refuse it out of hand, or if you don’t offer something sweet, it’s deprivation to the point of abuse.
The problem with the child hydration mythos is that it comes loaded with sugar. When parents give kids beverages besides water, they are loading them up with way more sugar that kids have ever historically received. That early sugar just leads to more sugar in the future. Soon, enough kids are pushing aside the fruit juice for soda and eventually, their health is put at risk.
Is there good stuff in fruit juice? Sure. But that same stuff, like vitamins, and minerals, also exists in greater quantities — along with dietary fiber and other nutrients — in actual fruit. A kid who doesn’t get fruit juice, but who has access to fruit isn’t being deprived. The fruit is a fine choice.
But above all, so is water. Just plain old water. Get it from a tap. Get it from a drinking fountain. Hell, even get it from a fancy bottle flown it in from gay Pair-ee. Just, give kids water. It will quench their thirst, no additives necessary.
And a bonus? In many places, you can score it for free. Like, people are simply piping it into public buildings. How crazy is that?
I’d like to think we could all finally agree that it’s time to turn our back on Big Juice. Water isn’t just a sometimes drink. It’s the main beverage they should drink when they say they are thirsty. Water’s what we should be handing them. Full stop.