|SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center|
Caffeine and Your Child
Most parents wouldn't dream of giving their kids a mug of coffee, but might routinely serve soft drinks containing caffeine. Foods and drinks with caffeine are everywhere, but it's wise to keep caffeine consumption to a minimum, especially in younger kids.
The United States hasn't developed guidelines for caffeine intake and kids, but Canadian guidelines recommend that preschoolers get no more than 45 milligrams of caffeine a day. That's equivalent to the average amount of caffeine found in a 12-ounce (355-milliliter) can of soda or four 1.5-ounce (43-gram) milk chocolate bars.
How Caffeine Affects Kids
A stimulant that affects kids and adults similarly, caffeine is a drug that's naturally produced in the leaves and seeds of many plants. Caffeine is also made artificially and added to certain foods. Caffeine is defined as a drug because it stimulates the central nervous system. At lower levels, it can make people feel more alert and energetic.
In both kids and adults, too much caffeine can cause:
Especially in young kids, it doesn't take a lot of caffeine to produce these effects.
Other reasons to limit kids' caffeine consumption include:
One thing that caffeine doesn't do is stunt growth. Although scientists once worried that caffeine could hinder growth, this isn't supported by research.
Foods and Beverages With Caffeine
Although kids get most of their caffeine from sodas, it's also found in coffee, tea, chocolate, coffee ice cream or frozen yogurt, as well as pain relievers and other over-the-counter medicines. Some parents may give their kids iced tea in place of soda, thinking that it's a better alternative. But iced tea can contain as much sugar and caffeine as soda.
Here's how some sources of caffeine compare:
Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Soft Drink Association
What's Caffeine Sensitivity?
Caffeine sensitivity refers to the amount of caffeine that will produce an effect in someone, which varies from person to person. On average, the smaller the person, the less caffeine necessary to produce side effects. However, caffeine sensitivity is most affected by daily caffeine intake.
People who regularly drink beverages containing caffeine soon develop a reduced sensitivity to caffeine. This means they require higher doses of caffeine to achieve the same effects as someone who doesn't drink caffeinated drinks often. So, the more caffeine kids take in, the more caffeine they'll need to feel the same effects.
In addition to being more susceptible to the effects of caffeine based on size, younger kids are more sensitive because they haven't been exposed to it as much as older kids or adults.
Caffeine moves through the body within a few hours and is then passed through the urine. It's not stored in the body, but kids may feel its effects for up to 6 hours if they're sensitive to it.
Can you keep kids caffeine-free? Absolutely! The best way to cut caffeine (and added sugar) is to eliminate soda. Instead, offer water, milk, flavored seltzer, and 100% fruit juice. For added convenience, serve water in squeeze bottles that kids can carry around. You can still serve the occasional soda or tea — just make it noncaffeinated. And watch for hidden caffeine by checking the ingredient list on foods and beverages.
If your teen has taken up coffee drinking, one cup a day can easily turn into several (as most adults know), especially if your teen drinks it to stay awake during late-night study sessions.
The best way to reduce coffee caffeine intake is to cut back slowly. Otherwise, kids (and adults) could get headaches and feel achy, depressed, or just downright lousy.
Try substituting noncaffeinated drinks for caffeinated sodas and coffee (water, caffeine-free sodas, and caffeine-free teas). Keep track of how many caffeinated drinks your child has each day, and substitute one drink per week with a caffeine-free alternative until he or she has gotten below the 100-milligram mark.
Someone cutting back on caffeine may feel tired. The best bet is to hit the sack, not the sodas: It's just a body's way of saying that more rest is necessary. Don't worry — energy levels will return to normal in a few days.
Feel free to let kids indulge in a sliver of chocolate cake at birthday parties or a cup of tasty hot cocoa on a cold day — these choices don't pack enough caffeine punch to be harmful. As with everything, moderation is the key to keeping your kids' caffeine consumption under control.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD