Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Do your kids beg for a Frappuccino every time you're in line at Starbucks?
How big of a deal is caffeine in kids? I was prompted to do this post after I almost (accidentally) purchased sparkling water with caffeine added to it. As I started to look around at all the brands of sparkling water, I was shocked to see how many are offering this now. We were already in the midst of an explosion of energy drinks loaded with caffeine. Some of these even call themselves "sports drinks" which is even more misleading and confusing. But now we have to worry about our kids getting caffeine in their water.
All parents need to know this: although caffeine is a huge part of our society, it is a drug and should be thought of that way. Let me share some of the potential harms to help explain myself further:
Sleep - Caffeine has a significant impact on sleep. A 2010 study showed that 75% of kids consumed caffeine and the more they consumed, the less they slept. It isn't just the quantity of sleep that's the problem, however. The quality of sleep is also impacted so they are not getting all the benefits even in the hours they do get. There is never a time in life when sleep is more important than childhood and adolescence.
Anxiety - Caffeine increases anxiety. This happens in children and adolescents whether or not they have underlying anxiety. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in three adolescents age 13-18 experience an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders in younger children have risen dramatically too.
Blood pressure - Caffeine raises blood pressure. If consumption is infrequent this is not a major concern, however regular intake means regular increases in blood pressure and all the negative consequences associated with it. Caffeine has other negative effects on cardiovascular health including increased heart rate and even arrhythmias at large doses. This can be an issue for teens/tweens taking caffeine pills or consuming energy drinks with very high caffeine levels.
Acid reflux - Caffeine increases the acidity in gastric secretions and lowers the tone in the lower esophageal sphincter. Both of these things physiologic changes contribute to the development or worsening of acid reflux.
Appetite - Caffeine lowers appetite (it is a stimulant). Adequate nutrient intake and weight gain are critical during these years of rapid growth. Decreasing appetite artificially through caffeine can, yes, stunt a child's growth.
As with other drugs, the effects of caffeine are dose dependent. The safe "dose" in children will be much lower than that in adults due to children's small size. Through research in genomics in recent years we also now know that some people are much more sensitive to caffeine than others due to the speed at which they metabolize it.
So my bottom line is wait as long as you can to introduce caffeine to your kids. Actively look for and avoid it as an ingredient in any sodas, sparkling waters or other pre-packaged drinks you buy for your children. If you can't say no to a drink at Starbucks (I would encourage you to limit these anyway due to most having a sky-high sugar content), order one without coffee (you can get frappucinos this way) or at least a decaf. If your tweens/teens are interested in drinking caffeine, discuss the potential harms honestly and encourage them to consume a safe amount and early in the day when it has less chance of effecting their sleep. If they are having trouble staying awake to complete homework, suggest a short catnap after school and take a good look at their amount of sleep, sleep hygiene, and talk to one of us or their pediatrician about whether something else may be affecting the quality of their sleep.