Tea and coffee have been part of my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandparents letting me make tea on the samovar. And I grew up in Venezuela, where coffee is part of the fabric of life. But my parents frowned on us drinking tea or coffee, mostly because they had heard that it would stunt our growth and development. Now that I have a kid of my own who wants to have a sip of my morning coffee or have a can of coke at birthday parties, I decided to investigate whether caffeine is safe for children and their development.
Statistics suggest that over 70% of children drink caffeine. Most of this is in the form of soda, but energy drink consumption is increasing too, particularly among teenagers. Considering these trends, it’s important for parents to know whether these caffeinated beverages can be harmful.
What impact does caffeine have on children?
Much to my surprise, there’s very little research on the effect that caffeine may have on children’s development. I could find no references associating caffeine with stunted growth, for example. Some studies suggest that caffeine has the same temporary effects in children as it has in adults, including “nervousness, jitteriness, fidgetiness”, among other common symptoms.
One study found that caffeine consumption in adolescents leads to later bedtimes and less deep sleep. Since most children and adolescents usually don’t get enough sleep anyway, a beverage that causes them to lose even more sleep due to jitteriness is not ideal.
Most caffeinated drinks are high in sugar and very low in nutritional value. Consequently, overconsumption of caffeinated beverages can lead to obesity. Kids who drink too much caffeine can also experience nausea, headache, upset stomach, and racing heart beat. These responses seem to be greater in boys than girls.
How much caffeine is safe for children?
Caffeine is a drug and a stimulant. Just like with most other drugs, the recommended amount we take depends on our weight. Consequently, limits and recommendations for caffeine intake are based on a child’s weight. To put the information into perspective, I’ve created an infographic with the average amount of caffeine in common beverages (the data is derived from the table in this paper. Article continues below infographic).
There isn’t a consensus on the amount of caffeine that is safe for children to consume. The FDA has not set a level for children and the American Academy of Pediatrics “discourages the consumption of caffeine” in young children altogether. For adolescents (aged 12-18), the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation, which is reiterated by the CDC, states no more than 100mg per day. However, other institutions around the world provide more specific guidelines.
Health Canada has specific recommendations for caffeine consumption for children of different ages. These are:
- Kids aged 4 to 6: no more than 45 mg per day
- Children aged 7 to 9: no more than 62.5 mg per day
- Children 10 to 12: no more than 85 mg per day
- Adolescents 13 and older: no more than 2.5 mg per kilogram of body weight
The European Food Safety Authority provides more general guidelines by stating that children and adolescents should consume no more than 3 mg per kilogram of body weight. Note that this is slightly higher than Canada’s guidelines and is a guideline aimed at children of all ages.
It was a relief to learn that caffeine in limited amounts will not harm my child in the long term, but I still plan to be cautious about giving him caffeine too close to bedtime. The last thing I need is a jittery grade-schooler who wants to stay up all night reading Harry Potter.