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The amount of water a child needs can depend on their age, activity level, and other factors. Experts recommend water be the main hydration source for children 1 year old and older.

Everybody knows water is essential for life. But after spending your child’s first year strategizing about how much breast milk or formula to give them, it can feel a little jarring to switch your thoughts to plain old water.

Now that bottles are a thing of the past and sippy cups are your new jam, you might be wondering just how much H20 your toddler needs.

Should they be sipping all day or just here and there? And how do you strike the right balance between water and milk for hydration and nutrients?

We’ve got the scoop on getting the right amount of water into the busy bodies of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-olds.

“Water should be the main source of hydration for kids over the age of 1,” says pediatric dietitian Grace Shea, MS, RDN, CSP, LDN — and there are several reasons why.

For one, getting plenty of water aids kids’ digestion — helping to ward off those unpleasant constipation issues nobody likes to deal with. And as your little one runs, wrestles, and rolls, they require water to replenish their fluid stores after activity (especially if playing outdoors or in the hotter months).

Plus, drinking water helps people of any age maintain a steady body temperature, lubricates joints, and protects tissues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And since it’s a zero-calorie, no-sugar beverage that won’t derail your toddler’s taste preferences, it’s pretty much a total win.

OK, so H20 is important, got it. But just how much does your little one need? Some experts recommend 1 cup per day per year of age — as in, 1 cup per day at 1 year, 2 cups at 2 years, and so on — but there’s no exact perfect amount.

“The amount of water a child needs depends on age, sex, and activity level,” notes Shea.

On average, it’s best to strive for around 2 to 4 cups (16 to 32 ounces) of water per day for toddlers ages 1 to 3. Along with their milk intake and the fluids in their foods, this will provide enough liquid to meet their needs.

Your pediatrician has probably given you the lowdown on the importance of including whole milk in your child’s daily diet. This high fat, high protein beverage offers top-notch nutrition for growing toddlers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 2 to 3 cups of whole milk per day for kids ages 1 to 2 and 2 to 2 1/2 cups for 2- to 5-year-olds.

Although milk comes with lots of benefits, more of it isn’t necessarily better.

“Too much milk can cause little ones to fill up and displace other nutrients and foods, as well as cause iron deficiency,” says Shea. “Ideally, water is the main source of fluids in a toddler’s diet. I recommend giving milk with meals versus in between so they don’t get too full for their next meal. Then provide unlimited water throughout the day.”

For a problem with such a simple solution, dehydration can wreak a lot of havoc. Whether your toddler just doesn’t have access to fluids or is suffering from gastrointestinal (GI) issues like diarrhea and vomiting, it’s not as hard as you might think for them to get dehydrated.

Because their bodies are more compact — with smaller water reserves — young children are actually at higher risk of dehydration than older kids and adults.

Warning signs of dehydration in your 1- to 3-year-old include:

  • low energy
  • little or no urine output or very dark-colored urine
  • dry lips or skin
  • extreme agitation or fussiness
  • cold skin
  • no tears produced while crying
  • increased heart rate

If dehydration goes on too long, it can lead to health complications or even death, so offer fluids often when your child is active and don’t hesitate to call or visit a healthcare professional if you notice these symptoms.

Fortunately, actual overhydration — the kind that creates health problems — is rare.

However, it’s possible (though uncommon) for your child to overdo it to the point where they experience so-called water intoxication.

This can lead to hyponatremia, a serious imbalance of sodium in your toddler’s system. Hyponatremia may initially look like fatigue and nausea and progress to symptoms like vomiting, brain swelling, seizures, coma, or death.

If you suspect your child has overhydrated to the point of hyponatremia, seek medical attention immediately.

The more likely issue you’ll run into if your toddler sips from a cup (or, worse, a bottle) nonstop has to do with appetite. A belly sloshing full of liquids isn’t one that’ll welcome dinner.

Got a toddler who never seems to want to eat at mealtimes — but uses a sippy cup like a security blanket? Consider offering drinks other than water more sporadically, such as only when you serve food. Their appetite very well may improve.

As soon as your child learns to talk, don’t be surprised if they clamor for other yummy drinks to round out their menu of milk and water.

Humans are wired to crave sweetness, and once kids sample the sweet flavors of juice or even soda, they’re not likely to forget the taste of these other beverages.

But experts don’t advise giving in to requests to fill the cup with OJ — at least, not very often.

“Drinks like juice or soda provide little nutritional value and pack in lots of added sugars that aren’t necessary for little ones,” says Shea.

In fact, the AAP recommends limiting fruit juice to just 4 ounces per day in toddlers ages 1 to 3 years. For children with underweight or overweight, the AAP advises eliminating fruit juice altogether and focusing on adding more whole fruits to their diet.

As for other sweet drinks like soda and sports beverages? Skip ‘em. Their high sugar content and low nutrient value make them not worth including in your toddler’s diet.

Toddlers should have two primary beverages on tap: water and milk. Between this duo of healthy drinks, they can get all the hydration they need.

Work toward a goal of 2 to 4 cups of water per day from ages 1 to 3.