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How old should your kids be before they start drinking coffee – and how much coffee should you allow them to drink? The answers to those questions are surprisingly harder to find than you might think. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t have a recommendation about kids’ caffeine intake. The Canadian government recommends that kids under the age of 18 should consume no more than 45 mg of caffeine a day, about the amount of caffeine found in one can of soda. While some tweens and teens drink no caffeine at all, many parents know that their kids are not drinking one soda – they’re drinking coffee and energy drinks, which typically have substantially more caffeine than soda. Parents and doctors are concerned about both the amount of caffeine that kids drink and the way they’re getting that caffeine.
As caffeine creeps into beverages and foods aimed at younger and younger consumers, parents are starting to ask questions about how caffeine affects their kids, how safe it is for them, and how much they can safely consume. Those are questions that are difficult to answer for a number of reasons.
Scientists have, understandably, done very little research into the effects of coffee and other caffeinated foods and drinks on children and adolescents. Researching it responsibly would require giving caffeine to kids – and there are far too many concerns about its safety in children for most scientists to be comfortable doing that. That’s why, while we’ve grown used to hearing about the beneficial effects of moderate coffee intake for adults, very little of that research extends to children and adolescents. However, in these days when coffee beverages resemble frothy desserts and highly caffeinated energy drinks come in flavors like “Tropical Fruit,” researchers are beginning to focus on how caffeine affects kids, tweens and teens.
The rate of caffeine consumption in kids under the age of 18 has more than doubled since the 1970s, according to research done in 2009. Since then, the amount of caffeine that kids take in has held steady – and even declined for some age groups. What has changed, according to many experts, is how and where kids are getting their caffeine. In the 1970s and 1980s, the average caffeine intake for children between the ages of 5 and 18 was 38 mg – about the amount in a 12-ounce serving of soda. By 2005, that amount had risen to 69.5%, an increase of nearly 70%. That was just about the time that energy drinks were introduced, and a number of studies undertaken since have focused on figuring out how much caffeine kids drink, and identifying the sources of caffeine in their diets.
Interestingly, a 2014 study found that caffeine intake had actually decreased for children between the ages of 2 and 11, possibly as a consequence of parents being more vigilant about sugar and caffeine in the drinks they provide for their children. Adolescents, on the other hand, continued to take in about the same amount of caffeine – but their preferred caffeine delivery methods changed dramatically. In 1999-2000, the date of one of the larger studies on the dietary intake of caffeine among children, soda accounted for 62% of the caffeine consumed by children. In 2009, teens and tweens were only getting 38% of their daily caffeine intake from soda.
By contrast, coffee had only accounted for 10% of kids’ caffeine consumption in 1999 – but had risen to a whopping 24% in 2010. Energy drinks, which hadn’t even existed in 1999, accounted for nearly 6% of caffeine intake for kids under 18.
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. It increases energy, focus and stamina, but it also has unpleasant side effects when someone consumes too much. Those include jitteriness, headaches, upset stomach, increased heart rate, and insomnia. Because children are smaller and have more sensitive systems, it takes much less caffeine to bring out those symptoms.
Caffeine can also interfere with calcium absorption in higher doses. Kids need calcium to build strong teeth and bones, and for proper body functioning. For that reason alone, parents should consider limiting their kids’ intake of coffee and energy drinks.
It’s not just about the caffeine, though. The coffee drinks that kids gravitate to – Frappuccino-type concoctions with lots of sugar and fat – and energy drinks are just as bad. Caffeinated drinks like caramel lattes, sodas and energy drinks contain nearly as much sugar as – or more than – a full-size candy bar…and they’re nearly all empty calories.
It’s also about what they’re not drinking when they’re filling up on sugary coffee and other caffeinated drinks. According to researchers, kids – teens especially – are substituting caffeinated drinks for water and milk, beverages that their bodies need.
Energy drinks can be especially dangerous to young children. A doctor at Children’s Hospital of Michigan determined that a full 50% of calls to poison centers about energy drinks had to do with children under six years of age. Between 2006 and 2008, there were more than 1.200 cases of caffeine toxicity in children under six reported to poison control centers around the country. In addition to the jitteriness and other symptoms noted above, high doses of caffeine can cause heart fluctuations and arrhythmias, seizures and even, in extreme cases, death.
First, if you have young children at home, treat highly caffeinated energy drinks like you do liquor. Keep them out of the reach of little ones.
Limit tweens to coffee and energy drinks as a once-in-a-while special treat, and pay attention to other sources of caffeine in their diet.
Provide attractive alternatives. Keep flavored waters and other low-caffeine alternatives on hand and encourage your kids to drink them instead of sugary, caffeinated drink.