Kids’ Caffeine Consumption – How Much Is Safe for My Child?

Modern society’s obsession with caffeine is undeniable. It’s not just in our coffee anymore; food companies infuse this substance in various food and beverage products, including children’s snacks. And while consuming caffeine in moderation is safe and may be beneficial for adults, it’s entirely different when it comes to kids. If you’re wondering whether caffeine consumption is safe and healthy for your child, this guide may have the answers you are looking for.

At A Glance

  • About 73% of the children in the U.S. consume caffeine in a day. However, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this bitter-tasting stimulant should have “no place in the diets of children and adolescents [Source: AAP].”
  • When a child consumes very high doses of caffeine, he may end up in serious medical danger. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, around 1,200 children below the age of 6 suffer from caffeine toxicity every year.
  • Some of the adverse effects of excessive caffeine consumption include (1) tachycardia, (2) arrhythmia, (3) hypertension, (4) sleep disturbance, (5) hyperactivity, (6) heightened anxiety, and even (7) death.
  • The main sources of caffeine in children’s diets are sodas, coffee, tea, and energy drinks [Source: AAP]. Various children’s snacks are infused with this psychoactive drug as well.
  • Conclusions of various studies on the issue of using caffeine as treatment for ADD and ADHD have been mixed. It is not usually the recommended treatment for these mental disorders, especially for children. If you still insist on exploring the use of caffeine as an alternative treatment for your child, you must first consult with his doctor.

What is caffeine?

Caffeine is a bitter-tasting substance that is naturally present in various plants, including but not limited to coffee beans, tea leaves, Kola nuts and cacao pods (Source: MedlinePlus). Therefore, it also found in various foods and beverages like coffee, tea, soft drinks, and chocolate bars. However, synthetic or man-made caffeine can also be found in several over-the-counter medications. It is a well-known and completely legal psychoactive drug that people ingest through what they eat or drink. To those who consume it knowingly, they do so because the caffeine helps them stay alert or perform optimally. This is one of the reasons why it is the most widely-consumed stimulant on the face of the Earth.

Caffeine Intake Among Children and Teenagers

Though people are indifferent about other people’s affinity for anything caffeinated, it’s an entirely different story when kids and adolescents are concerned. Parents, health professionals, and lawmakers are anxious about the potential adverse effects this supposedly “safe” substance may have on children. Such concerns are more than valid when, according to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), about 73% of the children in the U.S. consume caffeine in a day.

A boy drinks a lemonade from a glass in his hands

Why do parents allow their kids to consume caffeine?

The alarming number of kids that regularly consume caffeine raises the question of why parents allow them to do so. And in trying to answer this inquiry, three basic reasons spring to mind:

  • #1: Many parents are not aware that caffeine consumption among children is even a health issue. Nowadays, self-medicating with caffeine-infused beverages like coffee is the norm among adults. It’s a quick fix that would ensure that they can keep performing at their best. Caffeine not only increases their strength and endurance, it also delays their exhaustion and improves reaction time [Source: AAP Publications – Pediatrics]. Considering their personal experience with the benefits that consuming caffeine brings them, it comes as no surprise why some parents may have the impression that this substance might also be good for their kids.
  • #2: Even if they are aware that the caffeine intake of their kids is a cause for concern, they don’t like having to confront their children about it. Plenty of the food and drinks that kids enjoy are infused with caffeine. And so, if you decide to start depriving them of their favorite soft drink or snack bar, it is highly likely that your good intentions might cause some friction between you and your child.
  • #3: Parents don’t know which of the foods or beverages they buy for their children contain caffeine. Most people are very familiar with the traditional sources of caffeine (e.g., coffee, soda, etc.). But nowadays, other seemingly harmless food and beverage products (e.g., energy drinks and potato chips) contain caffeine, too. Therefore, try as they might, some parents wouldn’t be able to tell for certain if what they’re feeding their kids has caffeine in them unless the ingredient label of a food item says so.

Is caffeine consumption safe and healthy for kids?

The positive and negative effects of caffeine intake for adults have been studied heavily. Research on the impact of this stimulant among children, however, is very scarce. Hence, there’s no definitive answer on whether it’s totally okay for them to ingest it. Nonetheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a firm position on this issue. For the organization, any drink containing this stimulant has “no place in the diets of children and adolescents [Source: AAP].” The Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as the Institute Medicine do not consider caffeine as a nutrient either.

Negative Effects of Caffeine Consumption in Children

Health professionals frown upon the idea of letting children freely consume caffeine-infused products. Therefore, the promise of increased alertness and delayed fatigue when ingesting caffeine is not a benefit that should apply to kids. Instead, parents should refrain from finding ways to justify their children’s caffeine intake and should educate themselves on the negative effects of this bitter stimulant.

Below are some of the known adverse effects of consuming caffeine excessively:

  • May result in tachycardia (heightened resting heart rate)
  • May trigger arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Increases blood pressure
  • Heightened attentiveness and hyperactivity (motor and speech)
  • May cause sleep disturbances or insomnia
  • Worsens anxiety for kids with anxiety disorders
  • May lead to death (if a lethal dose is consumed)
[Source: AAP Publications – Pediatrics]

Negative Effects of Caffeine Withdrawal in Children

Since caffeine is a psychoactive drug, regularly ingesting it can get addictive. And so, if you ever decide to start depriving your child access to this stimulant, you can be sure that he won’t break the habit easily. Caffeine withdrawal is a difficult and unpleasant experience for adults, and you can only expect that children will go through the same thing.

Below are some of the known symptoms of caffeine withdrawal:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle pain or stiffness
  • Exhaustion
  • Drowsiness
  • Decreased alertness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
[Source: AAP Publications – Pediatrics]

How long does the effect of caffeine last?

The effects of caffeine kick in as soon as it enters the bloodstream. This process usually takes 15 minutes after ingesting it. The body only expels the substance after 6 to 7 hours.

Is caffeine consumption linked to bedwetting in children?

Many blame caffeine intake as the main reason why kids wet the bed while sleeping. However, research has yet to show a clear link between caffeine and bedwetting.

How much caffeine is safe for my child?

Currently, the U.S. government has yet to provide guidelines on the caffeine intake for kids. However, its northern neighbor, the Canadian government, has already set daily caffeine limits for Canadian parents to follow.

Age (Years)Maximum caffeine intake per day (oz.)Equivalent
4 – 60.0016 oz. (45 mg)1 can of cola
7 – 90.0022 oz. (62.5 mg)1 ½ cans of cola
10-120.003 oz. (85 mg)2 cans of cola
13 years and upVaries depending on weight

To calculate the recommended daily maximum caffeine intake for kids 13 years of age and above, use this formula:

Max. caffeine intake per day (in mg) = Child’s weight (in lbs.) x 1.1

What are the most common sources of caffeine in kids’ diets?

In the past, the two main sources of caffeine in children’s diets are soda and tea. In fact, according to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 38% of the caffeine consumption in children are from soda. However, nowadays, fewer children regularly drink soda, and more kids are preferring to drink coffee (24%) and energy drinks (6%). Not only that, more and more of children’s snacks (e.g., potato chips, candy bars, gum, etc.) are now infused with caffeine.

Caffeine Levels in Various Foods and Beverages

Food/Beverage/MedicineSize (oz.)Caffeine (mg)% of Recommended Max. Daily Intake
4 - 6 Years7 - 9 Years10 - 12 Years
Soft Drink (cola)83169%50%36%
1246102%74%54%
2077171%123%91%
Coffee8150333%240%176%
12225500%360%265%
20375833%600%441%
Tea84396%69%51%
1265144%104%76%
20108240%173%127%
Hot Chocolate8511%8%6%
12818%13%9%
201329%21%15%
Chocolate Milk8818%13%9%
121227%19%14%
202044%32%24%
Energy Drink895211%152%112%
12142316%227%167%
20180400%288%212%
Chocolate Brownie1.25818%13%9%
Chocolate Chip Cookie13-57-11%5-8%4-6%
Chocolate Ice Cream1.252-54-11%3-8%2-8%
Cold Relief Medicine1 tablet3067%48%35%

Caffeine Levels in Popular Food and Beverage Brands

Food/Beverage ItemSize (oz.)Caffeine (mg)% of Recommended Max. Daily Intake
4 - 6 Years7 - 9 Years10 - 12 Years
Coca-Cola123476%54%40%
Pepsi123884%61%45%
Mountain Dew1255122%88%65%
Jolt Soft Drink1271.2158%114%84%
Red Bull Energy Drink8.380178%128%94%
Rockstar Energy Drink880178%128%94%
Monster Energy Drink16160356%256%188%
Kit Kat Bar1 bar511%8%6%
Baby Ruth Bar1 bar2.45%4%3%
Butterfinger Bar1 bar2.45%4%3%

Sugar and Caffeine Are a Bad Combination 

Usually, where there’s caffeine, there’s sugar. This is because sugar can mask or suppress the overwhelmingly bitter taste of caffeine, which, while preferred by some adults, is not enjoyed by most kids. Another reason that people tend to mix these two substances together is their beneficial effects on sustained attention and verbal memory, which is an edge that many adults require when working [Source: Human Psychopharmacology]. However, when abused, combining caffeine and sugar brings about devastating consequences to our well-being.

In the case of children, the dangers outweigh the benefits so much that their exposure to the deadly combination of these two chemicals is highly objectionable for many parents. When your child consumes sugar and caffeine at the same time, his blood sugar levels shoot up, which makes him more energetic for a few hours. However, shortly thereafter, his blood sugar will crash, triggering cravings for more carbohydrates than his body’s actual calorie needs. As a consequence, this excessive sugar intake greatly imbalances your kid’s blood sugar levels and may lead him to have an overweight or obese body mass index (BMI).

Caffeine as a Treatment for ADD or ADHD?

Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are mental disorders that affect the ability of children to sustain their focus on their daily activities. These include but are not limited to dealing with schoolwork and interacting with other people. Both types of neurodevelopmental disorders are linked to symptoms like inattentiveness and distractibility. What makes children with ADHD different from ADD patients is that the former also show symptoms of hyperactivity as well as impulsivity.

Aside from behavioral therapy, these mental health conditions are treated using drugs – stimulants in particular. Through stimulant therapy, children with ADD or ADHD can stay focused better and have longer attention spans. Medication also helps in managing their impulsive behavior. And because caffeine is a legal and widely used stimulant, many scientists have considered the possibility of using it as a viable treatment for ADD and ADHD. However, so far, the conclusions of various studies on this issue have been mixed [Source: WebMD]. Therefore, it is not usually the recommended treatment for these mental disorders, especially for children.  Neither do experts recommend that you give your child caffeine when he’s already taking prescription medication.

And even if high doses of caffeine can help in controlling your child’s hyperactivity, he might be vulnerable to its unpleasant side effects as well. Therefore, if you still insist on exploring the use of caffeine as an alternative treatment for your child, you must first consult with his doctor.

Caffeine Overdose – How to Tell If Your Child Is in Danger

When a child consumes very high doses of caffeine, he may end up in serious medical danger. In fact, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, around 1,200 children below the age of 6 suffer from caffeine toxicity every year. Early detection of caffeine toxicity, however, is difficult since the early signs and symptoms are quite common and might not seem too serious. Nevertheless, as a parent taking care of your child, here are the things you need to watch out for:

  • Irritability
  • Increased thirst
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Your child will eventually display more severe symptoms if their condition is left unchecked. You need to seek medical attention immediately if your kid displays the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pains
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased heart rate
  • Jittery muscle movements
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Convulsions

The Relationship of Caffeine with Laziness and Sedentary Lifestyles

Caffeine intake by drinking coffee or energy drinks is a common strategy for young students to perform better in school. Historically, people associate coffee or caffeine as an extra boost to make you work harder. However, coffee drinking or caffeine consumption is not just credited for students’ higher productivity. This habit is also positively correlated with nicotine and alcohol consumption and living a sedentary lifestyle (e.g., too much screen time by watching TV or playing video games all day) [Source: Precision Nutrition]. Therefore, it is very likely that many coffee-drinking young adults are also drinking alcohol, smoking, and are physically unfit.

Moreover, a recent study on the behavior of rats suggests that consuming high doses of caffeine may be counterproductive for hard-working individuals. Instead of getting them to work harder, caffeine intake may only lessen the efforts or worsen the performance of originally-industrious students. The same study implied that consuming caffeine will not help slackers to do any better either [Source: Neuropsychopharmacology].

Tips on How to Reduce Your Child’s Caffeine Intake

  • #1: Start cutting back your child’s caffeine consumption gradually. Otherwise, they may suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, muscle pain, and depressed mood.
  • #2: Say goodbye to soda and energy drinks. For kids and teenagers (and even adults), water should be the primary source of hydration. You may also let them drink milk, flavored seltzer, or 100% fruit juice. If you really want to give them a glass of soda or a cup of tea once in a while, make sure you get him the decaffeinated one.
  • #3: Check the ingredient list of food and beverage items before buying them. You may not realize that some of the food products you have at home have caffeine in them.
  • #4: If your child starts to show signs of feeling tired, encourage them to sleep. Slowly cutting back your kid’s caffeine intake may deplete his energy levels in the beginning. However, sleeping and resting will surely replenish his energy reserves in just a matter of days.
  • #5: Educate your kids about the dangers of unhealthy caffeine consumption and teach them ways to regulate their intake.

 

At the end of the day, when it comes to consuming caffeine, moderation, if not complete avoidance, is key. Children don’t have the mindfulness and maturity that adults do. Therefore, it will be up to you as a parent to monitor your child’s caffeine intake. And, if necessary, you must slowly limit his consumption. Doing so will help ensure that your kid lives a safe, healthy, and contented life.

Kids’ Caffeine Consumption – How Much Is Safe for My Child?
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