Should Kids Consume Caffeine?

If you’re like most parents, you wouldn’t dream of getting through the day without some kind of caffeine pick-me-up first thing in the morning or midday. Not only can a cup or two of iced or hot coffee or tea, soda or other caffeinated beverage stimulate your brain and nervous system—and keep you awake for that early morning meeting, feeding or workout—it may also make you feel just a little bit happier! And what sleep-deprived parent of an infant or young child wouldn’t appreciate the perks caffeine can provide?

Unfortunately, it’s likely our caffeine-centric ways coupled with the widespread availability and marketing of caffeine-containing beverages and other products may prompt our children to seek out caffeine and possibly harm their health.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to determine a safe level of caffeine for children, the agency—concerned about the proliferation of caffeine-infused products including chewing gum, jelly beans, bottled water and waffles—announced last year its plan to investigate the safety of caffeine in food products and the effects of caffeine on children and adolescents. And just last week, the FDA issued a warning to consumers to avoid powdered pure caffeine, sold on the internet. The substance is believed to have caused a caffeine overdose and subsequent untimely death of an 18-year-old high school wrestler in Ohio.

According to a recent ABC News report, the boy had 70 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter of blood in his system, an amount that far exceeds the 3 to 5 micrograms you’d find in a typical coffee drinker.

Even a tiny amount of pure caffeine powder, which isn’t regulated by the FDA, can be harmful. For example, a mere teaspoon provides just about the same amount of caffeine as 25 cups of coffee.

As a moderate caffeine consumer, registered dietitian and mother of two (my older son just turned 16, and my younger son is 12), the use of caffeine by children concerns me. Because children typically weigh less than adults, they’re much more vulnerable to caffeine’s effects. And although few studies have examined the effects of caffeine in children, a recent review published in the Journal of Hypertension found that the caffeine concentration in so-called energy drinks is high and their over consumption could contribute to insomnia, agitation, tremors and cardiovascular complications like sudden death.

Although I don’t mind if my sons have an occasional caffeinated soda at a party, I’ve tried to encourage them to play it safe by simply avoiding caffeine-containing beverages—at least until they’re older and until caffeine amounts are required to be posted on labels. But until the FDA provides guidance on how much caffeine is safe for children to consume, it’s wise for parents to heed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics or Center for Science in the Public Interest and to encourage kids to avoid caffeinated soda, energy drinks, and for most kids (except extremely athletic ones), sports drinks—at least most of the time.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), caffeine may dial down a child’s appetite—a problem if a child is underweight or already has limited food or nutrient intake. The NIH also discourages caffeinated beverage intake in children who are hyperactive since it can potentially exacerbate their behavior.

Caffeine can also exacerbate anxiety and depression or interfere with sleep. In large amounts, it can reduce calcium absorption and thin bones. None of these effects are desirable, especially in growing children.

At the very least, it’s prudent to follow Health Canada’s daily guidelines for caffeine use in children aged 4 and above:

  • Age 4 to 6: 45 milligrams (~one 12-ounce can of cola)
  • Age 7 to 9: 62.5 mg (~one and a half cans cola)
  • Age 10 to 12: 85 mg (~two cans cola)
  • Age 13 and older: no more than 2.5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight

To see how much caffeine various beverages and foods contain, check out MedlinePlus or CSPI’s Caffeine Content of Food & Drugs.

It’s also critical to monitor children’s online purchases and to protect them from potentially harmful products like powdered pure caffeine and caffeine-loaded energy drinks that are easily available to virtually anyone online.

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

Image of family having breakfast in bed via shutterstock.

Do you let your kids consume caffeine? 

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