When the long, hot days of Fresno’s summer approach, lactation consultants are often asked whether breastfed babies need to drink water to remain hydrated. It would seem logical, since we all require extra water when our bodies lose fluids through sweating. And when we try to put ourselves in baby’s shoes, it seems that drinking warm milk on a hot summer day would do little to quench his thirst. When Fresno hits the triple-digit mark, warm milk is definitely not on my list of favorite beverages. But the fact is, babies from birth to six months are best kept on breast milk exclusively. That’s right. Only their mommy’s milk, no matter what season of the year it is. Understanding how this can work requires a little background knowledge of breast milk’s composition and function.
The most important thing to remember about breast milk is that it consists of about 88% water. That means that every single feeding baby takes from his mother provides him with a nice dose of water, along with all of the right nutritional components his body needs. The key to keeping the whole system in balance is remembering that all of this water must come from somewhere, so Mom needs to drink more water than ever before. As a rule, Mommy’s body will deplete itself to serve the baby. So if Mom forgets to drink her water, she’ll wind up feeling parched and uncomfortable, while baby remains hydrated and healthy. Luckily, there’s an amazing phenomenon that helps moms remember: within seconds of the baby’s first few suckles at breast, Mommy is hit with a profound thirst, which is very difficult to ignore. Most women who have breastfed notice this pretty quickly, and most agree that water seems to be the best choice for quenching their thirst.
As to the issue of whether warm milk can possibly feel satisfying on a hot day, it helps to know that the temperature of the milk coming straight from mom is ideal for baby’s digestive system. Even when the outdoor temperatures are soaring, baby’s digestion will be best able to handle breast milk at its normal temperature, around 98 degrees or so. Milk that is too cool will still digest, but it can cool the baby’s core body temperature too rapidly, and cause some stress.
So if a breastfed baby is offered extra water due to the hot, dry climate of the Central Valley, that water is completely unnecessary. In fact, it can do harm. That’s because adding water to baby’s diet can cause a decrease in the normal weight gain pattern, since some babies reduce the amount of calorie-rich milk they drink when they have a “full” feeling from water. It’s as if the water takes up precious space in the baby’s belly, so he may short-change his real feeding. As with most issues related to breastfeeding, it’s best to let nature take care of things the way they were originally designed. Artificial interventions are usually counterproductive.