Kids and Caffeine

child drinking out of mug

Once upon a time – not that very long ago, actually – it was almost unheard of for children to drink coffee. Nowadays, it’s common practice for teens to go for coffee after school; it's even more common for them to gulp down cans of high-caffeine soda and energy drinks, many specifically marketed to young consumers. That’s a lot of caffeine. Contrary to popular myth, caffeine doesn’t stunt growth, but it can have a number of detrimental effects on growing children.

Caffeine Effects: Insomnia, Irritability, and Obesity!?

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, which is why people often feel more alert when they drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages. However, it can also cause irritability, anxiety, increased heart rate and blood pressure, headaches and insomnia. Caffeine remains in the system for several hours (up to six), and negative effects can be felt throughout this time. In children, it doesn’t take much caffeine to bring on these feelings, and kids are consuming more caffeine now than ever before. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, soda consumption in kids aged 6-11 doubled from 1978 to 1994. Soda and other energy-boosting soft drinks and candy are often high in calories as well as caffeine, greatly increasing a child’s risk of obesity. Many caffeinated beverages are also heavily sweetened, and this high sugar content can result in tooth decay and cavities.

Caffeine can act as an appetite depressant, so kids who are filling up on soda aren’t getting the nutritional benefits of healthy food or drinks like milk and fruit juice. In fact, the phosphoric acid that carbonates soft drinks inhibits calcium absorption, which can impact bone and teeth development. Since caffeine is a diuretic, drinking high-caffeine beverages increases urination. This could cause dehydration in children, particularly in hot weather, when they’re likely to be outside, active and perspiring. Additionally, certain drugs, like cold medications, may either contain or interact with caffeine, so be sure to check with your health care provider about this before treating your children.

boy drinking soda

Caffeine Content in Popular Foods & Drinks

Caffeine is a common ingredient in soft drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate, and some medications. There are no official U.S. government recommendations on caffeine limits for children, but Canadian guidelines suggest no more than 45 milligrams of caffeine a day for preschoolers. As a rule of thumb, older children’s daily caffeine consumption should be 100 milligrams or less. Here is the approximate caffeine content for some popular drinks and food items:

Caffeine Content in Popular Foods & Drinks

Coca-Cola (12 ounces) 34 mg (milligrams)
Pepsi (12 ounces) 38 mg
Jolt soft drink (12 ounces) 71 mg
Red Bull (12 ounces) 80 mg
Mountain Dew (12 ounces) 55 mg
Iced tea (12 ounces)

70 mg

Black tea (6 ounces) 70 mg
Green tea (6 ounces) 35 mg
Brewed coffee (5 ounces) 115 mg
Instant coffee (7 ounces) 85 mg
Espresso coffee (2 ounces) 100 mg
Dark chocolate (1 ounce) 20 mg
Milk Chocolate (1 ounce)

10 mg

Cold medication (1 tablet) 30 mg

girl drinking soda from straw

How to Limit the Caffeine in Your Kids' Diets:

One way parents can limit their children’s caffeine content is by eliminating soda and soft drinks at home, and encouraging kids to choose healthier alternatives when they’re at school and out with friends. Children shouldn’t drink more than one can of soda a day; talk to your kids about caffeine and instruct them to cut out or limit their soda intake. Serve water, milk, and 100% fruit juice at home. If you want to treat your kids to an occasional soda or iced tea or coffee drink, make sure it’s decaffeinated, which generally still retains some caffeine, but in much smaller amounts. Don’t worry about having chocolate cake for dessert every so often or a bowl of coffee ice cream in the summer or hot chocolate on a cold winter day, as these treats don’t have very high levels of caffeine. Discourage teens from drinking a lot of coffee, either hot or in sweet, iced drinks, especially if they’re using the caffeine to help stay awake to study. If they’re already heavy coffee drinkers, help them cut back slowly, to avoid unpleasant (although just temporary) withdrawal side effects like fatigue, headaches, and bad moods.