Electrolyte Imbalance in Infants

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Found in blood and other body fluids, electrolytes are minerals that can carry an electrical charge. An optimal balance of electrolytes is critical to overall health, helping to keep the body in a state of homeostasis or internal balance, that allows it to deal efficiently with external forces. Because infants cannot alert others to the symptoms of electrolyte imbalances, parents and others entrusted with their welfare must carefully monitor them for problems.

Role of Electrolytes

Electrolytes can exist in the blood as acids, bases and salts and include such vital minerals as bicarbonate, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, potassium and sodium. They play an important role in facilitating and promoting a number of important body processes, according to MedlinePlus. They keep fluid levels within the body in healthy balance, maintain optimal levels of blood acidity and facilitate muscle function.

Incidence Among Infants

The balance of fluids and electrolytes in infants is much more sensitive than it is in adults, making it important to carefully monitor the very young for signs of trouble. Because of their significantly smaller size relative to adults, infants can easily become fluid-overloaded or dehydrated, according to Lois White, author of “Foundations of Nursing: Caring for the Whole Person.” Both dehydration and fluid-overload are likely to trigger an electrolyte imbalance.


A wide array of factors can cause dehydration, a flushing of vital fluids from the body that almost always is accompanied by a loss of important electrolytes. Joyce LeFever Kee, Betty J. Paulanka and Carolee Polek, authors of “Handbook of Fluid, Electrolyte and Acid-Base Imbalances,” point out that weight loss can provide a guide to the degree of dehydration, explaining that for every 1 percent decline in weight, the body loses 10 ml of fluid for every kilogram of body weight. In infants, a fluid loss of 50 ml/kg constitutes mild dehydration, while fluid losses of 100 ml/kg and 150 ml/kg are considered moderate and severe, respectively.

Common Causes

Two common causes of dehydration in infants are fever and/or gastroenteritis, according to Gaylene Altman, author of “Delmar’s Fundamental and Advanced Nursing Skills.” An inflammation of the delicate tissues lining the gastrointestinal tract, gastroenteritis may cause nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea, which can result in rapid dehydration. Infants can tolerate only a very limited loss of fluids before electrolyte imbalances ensue, making it important to seek medical help as quickly as possible.

Water Intoxication

While a sudden and dramatic drop in the body’s fluid levels almost always causes electrolyte imbalances, the same results can be produced when excessive amounts of water are consumed. And in infants, it doesn’t take that much water to cause a problem. Pediatrician James P. Keating, medical director of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Diagnostic Center, warns that too much water dilutes an infant’s normal sodium levels, increasing the risk of seizure, brain damage, coma and even death. Keating points out that healthy babies get all the hydration they need from breast milk or formula. For mothers who feel their infants need additional water, Keating suggests limiting it to 2 or 3 oz. at a time and only if the baby seems inclined to accept it.