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The following article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Family Safety & Health and represents the type of information your employees and their families can learn about each quarter.

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Kids and caffeine: Is it safe?

By Susan Vargas

Caffeine seems to be everywhere in our daily lives – look no farther than the coffee mug on your desk, the soda can in your refrigerator or the rows of chocolate bars in the nearest vending machine.

Although caffeine is a natural component of some foods and drinks, it’s often added. Recently, it has cropped up in all sorts of unexpected places, including kid-friendly products such as chewing gum, peanut butter, ice cream and jelly beans.

A 2014 study in the journal Pediatrics shows that 73% of children and adolescents consume caffeine. Soda is the most common source, followed by tea, coffee and energy drinks.

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A stimulant with a broad range of physical effects, caffeine is widely considered a drug. So how much caffeine is safe for kids, and at what age?

The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t established caffeine guidelines for kids, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages childhood caffeine intake altogether. Health Canada, however, recommends no more than 45 milligrams of caffeine a day (just a bit more than the amount you’d find in a 12-ounce can of soda) for kids 4 to 6 years old, 62.5 mg a day for kids ages 7 to 9, and 85 mg a day for those 10 to 12 years old. For older adolescents, the recommended limit is 85 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight.

Notice there’s no recommendation for children younger than 4. Wesley Delbridge, a registered dietitian and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that’s a good age to begin allowing limited caffeine consumption, although he doesn’t want parents to panic if they’ve already given soda to their 2- or 3-year-old.

“Kids can technically have caffeine before age 4, but it is up to the parents to decide when to introduce it,” he said. “The key is to pay attention to how your child reacts to it.”

What Caffeine Does

Dr. Marcie Schneider is an adolescent physician at Greenwich Adolescent Medicine in Connecticut and a former member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition. Schneider lists a wide range of ways caffeine can adversely affect the human body, including:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Moodiness
  • Insomnia

“On a good day, caffeine keeps you awake and alert,” Delbridge said. “But in kids, usually what we see is irritability, rapid heart rate, an increase in blood pressure and anxiety.” He adds that it’s difficult to predict how someone will be affected by caffeine, because everyone reacts differently depending on factors such as body composition, age, sex and how much caffeine they typically consume.

“We build up a tolerance,” he said. “My 91-year-old grandfather might have six cups of coffee per day because that’s what he’s used to, whereas a child who gets caffeine intermittently could be much more sensitive to it.”

Caffeine is addictive, Schneider notes, and kids who become dependent on it can suffer from nervousness, anxiety, headaches, fatigue, drowsiness and difficulty concentrating if they don’t get their daily dose.

“Kids get the same withdrawal symptoms that adults do,” she said. “Why would you want to do that to a child?”

It’s possible for anyone, including kids, to overdose on caffeine, as evidenced by the widely reported 2017 death of a 16-year-old boy in South Carolina. “There are extreme cases where too much caffeine can cause arrhythmias (where your heart starts getting out of beat) or seizures,” Delbridge said. However, he added, instead of worrying about a rare event such as this, parents should take the time to monitor their children’s overall caffeine intake, pay attention to how they react and consider how it might be affecting their day-to-day health.

What Caffeine Doesn’t Do

Kids and parents alike need to know a few important facts about caffeine, including what the substance does not do for our bodies, despite what may be shown in advertising for caffeine-containing products. Caffeine does not:

Quench kids’ thirst. A cold soda might seem like just the thing for a child who’s been playing outside on a hot day, but it isn’t the most effective way to rehydrate. “Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it causes us to urinate more,” Delbridge said. “The more we urinate, the more our bodies don’t have enough water, and then we’re drinking more soda because we’re thirsty – it’s a vicious cycle.”

Provide the nutrition kids need. There’s evidence that caffeine can interfere with the absorption of calcium – if a child drinks a caffeinated soda while eating cheese or yogurt, for example – but the effect is slight. Delbridge, however, is more concerned that caffeinated drinks are replacing important calcium sources such as milk in children’s diets. “Decreased calcium consumption is a major problem in the bone-building stages of child-hood, when you’re laying down the foundation of bone structure that will last you the rest of your life,” he said.

Provide real energy. Because of caffeine’s physical effects and the fact that the word “energy” often pops up in the names of caffeinated products, it’s tempting to use them as a fuel source to get through the school day, the big game or a late-night homework session. “Caffeine can make you feel more alert and awake, but it is not a source of energy,” Delbridge said. What’s more, he points out, because caffeine interferes with sleep, it can actually set up a vicious cycle that results in exhaustion. “More caffeine equals less sleep, less sleep equals more tiredness and more tiredness equals more caffeine – it never ends,” he said. “Kids should be getting their energy, alertness and ability to concentrate from food, exercise and plenty of sleep.

Note: Although the information and recommendations contained in this article have been compiled from sources believed to be reliable, the National Safety Council makes no guarantee as to, and assumes no responsibility for, the correctness, sufficiency or completeness of such information or recommendations. Other or additional safety measures may be required under particular circumstances. This material may not be reproduced in any fashion without the National Safety Council’s permission.