Many parents can’t imagine getting through the day without a cup (or four) of coffee, so it’s not surprising that kids might be curious to try it for themselves. While a lot of children will be turned off by a bitter, black brew, sugary coffee drinks (see: a Frappuccino laden with whipped cream and caramel drizzle) can be tempting for youngsters. As kids enter their tween and teen years and start hanging out in coffee shops with their friends, they may become even more interested in moving on from the occasional sip of Mommy's iced mocha to their own cold brews and lattes.
Given warnings about the caffeine content in energy drinks marketed to young people, how worried should parents be if their kid starts requesting a cup of Joe?
What experts say
According to a 2014 report published in the journal Pediatrics, about 73% of children consume some form of caffeine on any given day. While soda accounts for most of that consumption, some 24% of kids were found to be drinking coffee. Does that mean it's OK? “The answer to that question is complicated,” Dr. Kristen Cook, a pediatrician with Ascension Medical Group, tells Yahoo Life.
“The biggest concern about coffee consumption in the pediatric population is related to caffeine levels, the component in coffee that leads to its desired effects,” Cook explains. Because caffeine is a stimulant, drinking coffee “can temporarily increase energy levels and help us feel more alert,” she says. Both children and adults crave that boost.
What to consider about caffeine
But even in adults, caffeine can be detrimental. According to the Mayo Clinic, those who are sensitive to caffeine and who do not drink caffeine frequently may experience undesired side effects after drinking even small amounts of coffee. Coffee can cause some people to become jittery and cause insomnia. Excessive caffeine intake in adults can lead to increased heart rate, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, irritability, anxiety, lightheadedness and heartburn, Cook says. Children who consume caffeine can also experience all of these side effects.
Addiction is another risk of consuming coffee and other forms of caffeine, Cook adds. She explains that caffeine triggers the brain to release dopamine, which encourages continued consumption. Addiction “involves negative effects on physical, social and emotional functioning,” she says. Over time, children might require “more and more caffeine to achieve increased alertness” or avoid symptoms of withdrawal, she says. Once a child is addicted to caffeine, they may have headaches, have difficulty concentrating, become irritable or complain of flu-like symptoms if they try to cut out caffeine.
The effects of caffeine can be even worse in high doses. “Excessive caffeine intake can result in elevated heart rates and blood pressure, exacerbate acid reflux and lead to anxiety and disruptions in sleep patterns” in children, Dr. Tekeema Dixon, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente, says. Excessive caffeine intake among children can also lead to emergency room visits, she adds.
Cook notes that because, in general, “a child’s body weight is less than an adult’s body weight,” they may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
What are the other risks of consuming coffee?
In addition to the side effects caused by the caffeine in coffee, many coffee drinks are packed with sugar and calories. Cook cautions that this “can contribute to the development of obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and, potentially, heart disease.”
What does this mean for kids?
Cook says that “while the scientific evidence about caffeine in adults is pretty clear, no one knows the safe level of caffeine intake for children.” While there are no federal guidelines regarding children and caffeine, it is recommended that children do not consume any caffeine, including coffee, until they are 12 years old.
For children 12 years and older, Dixon says that they should “not exceed 100 milligrams of caffeine per day, equivalent to two small cans of soda.” An eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee has nearly 100 milligrams of caffeine, so children 12 and older who drink coffee should limit themselves to a single small coffee a day.
As a mother of two, Cook acknowledges that caffeine is “prevalent in our society” and is present in many foods children consume regularly, including chocolate, some cereals, chocolate milk and protein bars. “I think it would be pretty difficult to find a child who has never consumed caffeine, which is why it is important to be realistic about caffeine intake,” she says. Cook also points out that “even decaffeinated coffee contains caffeine,” albeit in smaller amounts.
According to Cook, a "good rule of thumb is that the younger and smaller the child, the less caffeine they should consume,” from coffee or any other source. But that's not to say that older kids can drink as much coffee as they want. For instance, Cook says she would “never advise” her high school-aged patients to drink coffee, even if they need to stay up late to do homework. “It can do more harm than good,” she says.
Dixon advises against giving children any coffee, even a sip. "Developing bodies may be more sensitive to caffeine’s effects,” she notes, and giving children coffee can lead to bad habits later on. “Once a parent allows their child to have a sip of coffee, it can set a precedent that makes it easier for the child to request more,” she explains.
As Cook notes, realistically, it’s almost impossible for children to avoid all caffeine. Because of this, balance is important. For example, if a child does have some coffee, Cook recommends they avoid all other forms of caffeine for the rest of the day.
“We don’t want our kids to rely on the stimulant properties that caffeine provides,” Cook says. That means it’s important to monitor how much caffeine kids consume, and to intervene when necessary. If parents do allow their kids to drink coffee, she advises they “should look for signs that coffee or caffeine is affecting their kids adversely” and “reconsider their caffeine intake” if their children start to experience any negative effects.