Why Coffee Might Actually Be Good For Kids

A new study shows decaf coffee might help with constipation and could even be safe for kids. But it doesn't mean your kid should be drinking it every day.

Child drinks hot beverage

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Parents everywhere know the magical effects of coffee. It keeps us running, especially after those sleepless nights, and well, it also helps to get things moving in the bathroom from time to time. If you've ever had a child with constipation, you may have wondered if a little shot of your morning joe might help them. It turns out researchers have wondered about this, too.

A surprising new study from Florida's Orlando Health shows a reasonable amount of decaffeinated coffee may benefit kids' digestive health. In other words, a small amount of decaf coffee may actually be good for kids.

What the Study Says

Over the course of four years, doctors at the Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children have been studying kids with chronic constipation. They wanted to know if coffee could help the children resolve their digestive problems safely. The doctors studied a group of 16 kids between the ages of 9 and 11 dealing with chronic constipation who were given regular coffee, decaffeinated coffee, and caffeine tablets.

Unsurprisingly, the study showed that caffeinated coffee works wonders in helping kids empty their bowels. But things got a little more interesting when they looked at the effects of decaf. The researchers found decaffeinated coffee had a powerful effect on stimulating the colon enough to help with elimination.

"Coffee appears to promote colonic motility, which is how stool moves down before defecation via the rectum," says Vijay Mehta, DO, the lead physician on the study and pediatric gastroenterologist at Orlando Health-Arnold Palmer Hospital, Center for Digestive Health and Nutrition. "By stimulating the colon, we believe it would help those with underlying constipation."

Is Coffee Safe for Kids?

Many people believe coffee stunts a child's growth and can limit their stature. Also, caffeine is highly addictive, and many parents wonder if it's even safe to give their teens coffee, since little is known about the effects of caffeine on children and adolescents.

"Caffeine is a drug," says Cindy Rubin, M.D., FAAP, the founding pediatrician at In Touch Pediatrics and Lactation, PLLC. "Generally speaking, we do not recommend coffee in children (or large amounts in adults) because coffee itself, whether caffeinated or not, can be very irritating to the lining of the stomach."

Dr. Rubin points out that caffeine in any form can cause symptoms such as the heart racing or beating faster, a heightened state of alertness, and digestive irritation. Additionally, there is little evidence that caffeine is safe for kids long-term.

But that's where the study from Orlando comes into focus. Since most studies on caffeine have been done on adults, there is a growing interest in learning how caffeine can affect kids. For example, people think that coffee stunts a child's growth because of previous research conducted with elderly people—not kids.

"As far as we know, issues with caffeine arise more at high doses, particularly with individuals that have underlying issues with anxiety," says Dr. Mehta. "We do not know if coffee truly stunts growth as there have not been randomized studies to evaluate this. However, there was likely concern based on the thought that coffee can lead to more calcium release from bone and excretion into urine. By affecting bone mass, you would affect height. This was mainly hypothesized in the elderly population and has not been studied in pediatrics."

Is Decaf Safe to Give Kids With Constipation?

The study shows that giving a child a reasonable about of decaffeinated coffee may be safe and beneficial in relieving constipation. The operative word here is "reasonable," meaning parents shouldn't be buying a grande decaf to help their child go to the bathroom. But perhaps a small cup of decaffeinated coffee is worth trying if nothing else has helped your child have a bowel movement.

"Our study was interesting as it showed decaffeinated coffee produced a stimulant effect [as caffeinated coffee] in half of the patients," says Dr. Mehta. "Therefore, we believe there is another component in coffee that acts as a stimulant outside of caffeine."

Dr. Mehta says his team has discussed future studies to look closer at decaffeinated coffee, like how it affects digestion at different times of the day and whether it could be used after operations to help get things moving again.

As for using decaf coffee to help kids, Dr. Mehta says there is concern about how much caffeine exposure kids get from things like energy drinks, which mix high amounts of caffeine with other stimulants.

"Decaffeinated coffee seems to be a reasonable option for consumption, but I would limit the number of caffeinated beverages, particularly from soda and energy drinks," he says.

While this study is exciting, it is also small in scope and highlights the importance of pediatric research.

"Often due to lack of financial incentives, research in the pediatric realm is limited, especially regarding national studies," says Dr. Mehta. "Pediatric patients are not simply smaller adults, and as such, the way medications or various agents affect the pediatric population will be different to adults."

What Can Parents Do To Relieve Constipation Before Turning to Coffee?

Constipation is a very common problem for kids and adults. Dr. Rubin suggests talking to your child's pediatrician to delve into the symptoms and how long they've been going on.

"Constipation is very common in children and can often be treated with behavior modification like increased fiber in the diet and increased water intake," says Dr. Rubin. "But sometimes there are underlying conditions that contribute to these problems (food sensitivities, anxiety, anatomic abnormalities), so it's always important to talk to your pediatrician if the problems persist."

Dr. Rubin also suggests trying prunes or prune juice as a first line of defense. If increased fiber and water don't help, you can ask your pediatrician about stool softeners or laxatives to alleviate constipation.

The Bottom Line

Small amounts of decaffeinated coffee are probably safe to give your child as needed to relieve constipation. If your child is dealing with constipation issues, you can still safely rely on tried and true home remedies like prune or pear juice, increasing water and fiber intake, and reducing foods that may cause tummy issues. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child's health.

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  1. Mehta V, Hopson P, Irastorza L, et al. Effect of caffeine on colonic manometry in children. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 2023;76(1):20.

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