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How Much Caffeine is Too Much for a Child?

Caffeine drinks and foods are everywhere – and kids are gobbling them up! Learn how caffeine affects the body, the hidden sources of caffeine, and how much caffeine is too much for a child.

No doubt, caffeine may be the most popular, legal, easily obtained, and socially acceptable drug in our nation. But caffeine for kids? Increasingly, and at younger ages, it’s common to see kids toting caffeine-laden drinks.

Kids carry around their favorite Starbucks latte or can’t-live-without Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. Is this a fix or a status symbol? I’d venture to say it’s probably both.

How much caffeine is too much for a child

Is Coffee Bad for Kids?

Recent surveys highlight caffeine for kids as a growing concern in young people’s diets.

According to a 2014 study in Pediatrics, almost 75% of children consume caffeine every day. Most of it comes from soda, but that’s changing.

Energy drinks and caffeine pills add to the increased caffeine in our children’s diets. These concentrated sources of caffeine have potential adverse health risks for kids.

However, coffee and other sources of caffeine aren’t limited to the school-age and teenage crowd.

A study of Boston toddlers (1-2 years old) looked at their consumption rates of coffee. Among 1-year-olds, the rate of coffee consumption was 2.5 percent.

By the time children reached the age of 2, over 15% were consuming coffee. The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans explicitly advise avoidance of caffeine for kids under age two, which I cover in this podcast.

Of these 2-year-olds, about 15% consumed as much as 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of coffee each day. Not only is caffeine a concern for these little ones, but so is the likelihood of added sugar in their diet.

How Much Caffeine is Safe for a Child?

The FDA hasn’t set a level for children. However, major health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) state that “caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.”

Pediatricians suggest children under the age of 12 years should not eat or drink any caffeine-containing foods or drinks.

For children older than twelve, caffeine intake should fall between a maximum of 85-100 milligrams (mg) per day. That’s the equivalent of about two 12oz cans of soda or one 8 oz cup of coffee.

A child is at risk for caffeine overdose and caffeine toxicity if they ingest over 50 mg per pound, which is toxic.

Is Coffee Bad for Teens?

For children older than 12, the recommendation is 85-100 mg caffeine per day.

That’s about one cup of Folger’s or Maxwell House coffee, 1 to 2 cups of tea, or 2 to 3 cans of soda.

A more recent 2017 systematic review of caffeine intake among adults, pregnant women, teens and children indicates that a dose of 2.5 mg/kg/day of caffeine shouldn’t cause harmful effects on teens. That’s about 115 mg caffeine for a 100# pre-teen.

I like this estimation because it’s based on body weight, not an arbitrary age. We know kids come in all shapes and sizes, so a 16 year old male football player is more likely to safely handle more caffeine than a 16 year old female gymnast, for example.

Now, let’s take a look at how caffeine affects your child’s body.

Effects of Caffeine on Children

Caffeine is a stimulant that primarily affects the activity of the brain and organs.

We have limited studies on the effects of caffeine in growing children. While it won’t stunt your child’s growth, it might have an adverse effect on his sleep, diet, blood pressure and heart rate.

Here some examples of how caffeine may affect your child.

Sleep

Caffeine stimulates alertness, so it makes sense that caffeinated beverages, and food may interfere with sleep.

Kids and teens are still growing and need more sleep than adults. Regular caffeine consumption can lead to not getting enough sleep.

Lack of sleep may affect alertness during the day, leading to a vicious cycle of consuming more caffeine to stay awake.

Nutrition

Your child’s nutrition may suffer from a diet high in caffeine. Energy drinks, soda, and coffee curb a child’s appetite, reducing how much he’s eating overall.

Caffeinated drinks, sometimes also full of sugar, take the place of nutritious beverages.

When kids drink too many coffee drinks, they may not realize they’re consuming empty calories which may contribute to unhealthy weight gain.

Nervous System

A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at the effects of caffeine intake on boys and girls aged 8-9 years and those aged 15-17 years.

All children and teens in the study experienced changes in their blood pressure (increased) and their heart rate (slowed down).

The effects were the same in both boys and girls in the younger group, but stronger in the teen boys than in the teen girls.

Other common side effects included jitteriness, nervousness, an upset stomach, problems sleeping and concentrating. 

More severe symptoms occured with caffeine overdose.

What is Caffeine Overdose?

Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, extreme restlessness, a flushed face, frequent urination, “scatterbrain” thoughts and actions, a high heart rate, and an irregular heartbeat may signal caffeine overdose. Too much caffeine can also lead to dehydration.

A caffeine overdose can lead to seizures and cardiac arrest.

Thankfully, such cases are rare.

Food and Drinks that Contain Caffeine

Coffee is the obvious source of caffeine, but you can find it in other sodas, food and drinks that contain caffeine.

The following table shows you where caffeine is lurking:

Caffeine comparison chart

Can Kids Drink Energy Drinks?

Energy drinks are another growing source of caffeine for kids and teens.

Some energy drinks could have up to 164 mg in a 16 oz can. Many energy drinks bottles are actually more than one serving, resulting in large caffeine doses if a child drinks the entire bottle.

Energy drinks also include other micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), herbal additives, and sugar in potentially large doses.

Energy drinks are supplements so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t closely regulate them. Regulation is left to the manufacturers themselves.

[If you have a young athlete, I dig into this topic in-depth in my book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete.]

The risk of contaminants, such as steroids or heavy metals, mislabeled ingredients, and incorrect amounts are real issues for the consumer.

It’s hard to tell what energy drink has the most caffeine, as products are always changing. However, always discourage the use of energy drinks in your child.

Teach your child to be aware of what an energy drink is, and how and why to avoid them.

What about Caffeine Pills and Powders?

Caffeine pills and powders are relatively new and growing in popularity. They’re used for a boost of energy, particularly among young athletes.

The concentrated dosage of caffeine in caffeine pills and powders makes them very dangerous. One teaspoon of powder could contain up to 2,000 mg caffeine. That’s equivalent to 20-25 cups of coffee.

This high concentration of caffeine enters the bloodstream quickly and wreaks havoc on your child’s nervous system.

The Bottom Line

While one parent thinks it’s no big deal to offer a sip of their latte to their young toddler, another one is oblivious to the amount and regularity with which their child consumes it.

I think we need to pay more attention to caffeine, and especially to how it’s percolating in our kids’ diets.

If you have a child with anxiety, heart problems, or nervous system issues, your child may be more sensitive to caffeine, making the side effects more intense.

What do you think about caffeine for kids?

And what are the hidden sources of caffeine in your child’s diet?

Want to Learn More?

Check out our guides and resources to help you better nourish your child, inside and out!

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