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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Teen girl drinking iced coffee

Caffeine and Kids – A Look at the Numbers

Like many parents, I begin my day with a mug of strong coffee. Caffeine can help with the sleep deprivation that can come with the job of being a parent! But my caffeine habit isn’t something I worry much about – for the most part it’s considered safe for adults in moderation.

But what about kids? Well that may be a different story. Let’s look at the numbers. Here are the findings from several studies that looked at caffeine consumption and content in the US reported by the American Board of Pediatrics:

  • 89% of all Americans consume caffeine in some form on a daily basis. Usually we drink our caffeine, but – there’s a crazy array of caffeinated products to choose from, including jelly beans, donuts, maple syrup, peanut butter, vaping liquid, and chewing gum.
  • 75% of kids consume caffeine regularly.
  • 2- to 5-year-olds consume an average of 24 mg of caffeine daily.
  • Older kids consume about 50 mg/day and adults 180 mg/day.
  • 50% of teens regularly have energy drinks.
  • 64% of Americans consume coffee. That’s up from 53% 10 years ago.

Here’s the caffeine content in some common drinks (amounts vary widely by brand):

  • Coffee, 8 oz = 163 mg
  • Diet cola, 12 oz = 46 mg
  • Black tea, 8 oz = 55 mg
  • Green tea, 8 oz = 25 mg

Energy drinks and shots are a concerning source of caffeine. They typically contain high levels in small volumes. For example, there’s 80 to 250 mg of caffeine in a single 8 oz serving and as high as 500 mg in a 1 ounce shot. This makes it easier to quickly consume high and potentially toxic doses of caffeine.

Energy drinks can also be poorly labelled and may have additives, such as Guarana, a plant with a high concentration of caffeine, that boost the actual caffeine level and its effect. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends kids avoid energy drinks completely – they have no place in our kids’ diets.

How much caffeine is safe?

The U.S. Federal Drug Administration recommends healthy adults have no more than 400 mg of caffeine a day (about 2 cups of coffee), but stress that it affects people differently. Some are more sensitive and metabolize it more slowly. Pregnant women should talk with their doctors before consuming caffeine.

Caffeine also effects growing kids and adolescents going through puberty differently than adults. The AAP recommends that children under 12 should ideally have no caffeine, and older kids should have no more than 100 mg a day.

The health risks of caffeine in children include:

  • Nausea
  • Nervousness
  • Higher than normal heart rate and blood pressure
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Seizures

Kids who drink more caffeine spend more time on electronics and are less physically active. They’re more anxious and hyperactive. Caffeine can disturb sleep – even hours after having it. With decreased sleep, we tend to crave more caffeine. This leads to an unhealthy cycle of caffeine consumption and sleep deprivation.

Older kids who consume caffeine engage in more risk-taking behaviors, including alcohol and tobacco use. In extreme cases, toxic levels of caffeine can result in death. Energy drinks used as mixers for alcohol can contribute to an overall increase in alcohol consumption. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains this affect.

“When alcohol is mixed with caffeine, the caffeine can mask the depressant effects of alcohol, making drinkers feel more alert than they would otherwise. As a result, they may drink more alcohol and become more impaired than they realize, increasing the risk of alcohol-attributable harms.”

And yet, caffeine does nothing to actually “sober you up.” Many of the effects of caffeine have not yet been studied in kids, so we don’t fully understand how it affects their developing brains and growing bodies. We don’t yet have clear data about what levels of caffeine are safe for young children and teens. More research needs to be done, and, until this happens, we should approach caffeine in our kids’ diets with caution and moderation.

Find more resources for parents

Caffeine Informer:
Caffeine Content of Drinks

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Caffeine Sources for Children and Teens
Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
The Buzz on Energy Drinks

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much?

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