Many of the food and drink items that children and teens crave have caffeine in them. You can find caffeine in soda, energy drinks, and chocolate candy — even hot cocoa. If these are some of your child’s favorites, he or she could be consuming more caffeine than you think.
About 73 percent of children consume caffeine on any given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s roughly 3 out of 4 children who regularly have caffeine. Most of these children get their caffeine from soda. But soda intake is on the decline, says the CDC. It is being replaced by energy drinks and coffee.
Is caffeine bad for my child?
Caffeine is a stimulant. More than that, it is a drug. It is defined as a drug because it stimulates the central nervous system. In adults, this means it can make you more alert, even give you more energy. In children, caffeine can raise blood pressure and interfere with sleep. It can make children less aware of being tired. It can affect their moods, and make anxiety worse. They can even suffer headaches from caffeine withdrawal.
Not a lot is known about how caffeine affects a child’s developing brain. But kids (especially young children) can be sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not offered a recommendation regarding caffeine and kids or teenagers. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against caffeine being a part of a child’s diet.
What about my teenager?
As more and more teens trade soda for energy drinks, they have become a focal point of caffeine consumption.
The AAP states that kids should not consume energy drinks and rarely need sports drinks. “Energy drinks pose potential health risks because of the stimulants they contain, and should never be consumed by children or adolescents,” according to the AAP.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states that the FDA should set guidelines for energy drinks. Labels should be standard and truthful. Products should be tested and controlled. AAFP also is against marketing and selling energy products to kids under 18 years old.
You already know that soda, coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate contain caffeine. What you may not know is that caffeine is sometimes “hidden” in other food and beverages, too. And you won’t even find it on the label. Because caffeine is not a nutrient, food manufacturers aren’t required to list it on the food label.
Here are some examples of food and drinks where caffeine may be hiding:
- ice cream
- decaf coffee
- protein bars
- some root beers
- flavored sodas (that aren’t cola).
Path to improved health
It is difficult to completely avoid caffeine. But you can work to minimize the amount of caffeine your child consumes each day.
A good start is to try to eliminate soda from your child’s diet. If your child drinks a lot of soda, you may need to start slowly. Begin by limiting the number of sodas your child drinks until you get to zero. Instead, offer your child water or milk to drink. These are two of the best drinks for kids. If your child is active, resist the urge to offer him or her sports drinks.
It may be more difficult to convince teens to limit their beverages to milk and water. Your teen may complain about needing the energy boost caffeine provides. If so, encourage them to exercise. Working out can cause your teen to sleep better and have more energy.
Things to consider
Many caffeinated beverages are also loaded with sugar. Drinking sodas, flavored coffees, and energy drinks can add hundreds of calories to your child’s diet. Over time, this can cause obesity.
Sugar also can cause insulin resistance and lead to type 2 diabetes.
The sugary drinks are also harmful to your child’s teeth. They can cause tooth decay and cavities.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect your child may have overdosed on caffeine, you should contact your doctor immediately. Overdoses are rare, but do happen. According to Poison Control, signs of a possible caffeine overdose can be mild or severe. Mild symptoms include shaky hands (jittery) and an upset stomach. Severe symptoms include high blood pressure, seizures, and even coma (loss of consciousness).
Questions for your doctor
- Are there any health benefits related to caffeine?
- At what age can someone safely consume caffeine?
- What other health risks are associated with kids consuming caffeine?
- How can I tell what foods have caffeine in them?
- If my child quits caffeine now, should I worry about withdrawals?