Kids and caffeine: Is it safe?
Recently, caffeine 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 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 cola) 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.
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 products:
Caffeine doesn’t 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,” says Wesley Delbridge, a registered dietitian and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “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.”
Caffeine doesn’t 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 childhood, when you’re laying down the foundation of bone structure that will last you the rest of your life,” he said.
Caffeine doesn’t 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, is that because caffeine interferes with sleep, it actually can 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.”