Here's what pediatricians want you to know.
Walk into any Starbucks around 3 p.m. and you’ll likely see a gaggle of teenagers gossipping over frappuccinos. Whether it’s in the form of coffee drinks, soda, iced tea or energy drinks, teens (and many kids) love their caffeine.
While you likely know that these types of drinks aren’t exactly healthy, you might be wondering if allowing your kids to enjoy them on the reg could actually get in the way of their growth. The belief that caffeine stunts your growth is a common one. Is there really something to it, or is it folklore?
Does Caffeine Stunt Your Growth?
While seeing a toddler with soda in their sippy cup may sound far-fetched, one study showed that 15 percent of children are consuming caffeinated beverages by age two.
Dr. Mehul Patel, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hermann Pediatrics in Houston, Texas, says that while caffeine consumption is safe in low amounts for kids, he warns against giving it to infants and toddlers. This includes not only drinks with caffeine but also chocolate, which has caffeine. “There is no good reason to get a toddler or infant jittery,” he says.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN, a pediatric dietitian and the founder and CEO of The Nourished Child, agrees, saying, “although the Food and Drug Administration has not set limits on caffeine for children, pediatricians and other pediatric healthcare professionals generally advise against children under the age of two consuming caffeine-containing foods and beverages.”
As your child reaches elementary school age, you may wonder if it’s okay for them to have soda, probably the caffeinated beverage kids love the most. Dr. Patel says that one can of soda a day is fine, but he certainly wouldn’t recommend anything more than that. “Though there are no official American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines [regarding caffeine], I would recommend 45 grams, or one can of soda, max for children four to six years of age and 85 grams for ages six to 12,” he says. “It is of course in no way recommended that kids have two cans of soda per day.” He says that this isn’t just because of the caffeine, but also the other ingredients in soda, including soda or artificial sweeteners.
Castle says that caffeine should be minimized for kids under 12. It won’t stunt growth, but she says it can interfere with sleep, behavior, and other health concerns. As for preteens, she says caffeine should be kept under one milligram per pound of body weight, which is the equivalent of two to three 12 ounce cans of soda or an 8 to 12 ounce cup of coffee.
Why Soda, Coffee Drinks, and Other Caffeinated Drinks Should Still Be Consumed Minimally
While both experts reiterate that caffeine doesn’t stunt growth, they do say it can be harmful to kids’ health in other ways. “There is no evidence that caffeine consumption stunts growth in children, however, there is data that suggests it may interfere with sleep, increase the sugar content of the diet, increase blood pressure and incur symptoms such as jitteriness, stomach upset and difficulty concentrating,” Castle says.
This is especially noteworthy given the rise in childhood obesity. In the past three decades, childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled in adolescents and more than doubled in children. One in six youth in the U.S. have obesity. This includes 12.7 percent among two to five-year-olds, 20.7 percent among six to 11-year-olds and 22.2 percent among 12 to 19-year-olds. “Any food that has no nutritional value is empty calories,” Dr. Patel says. “Our children should be eating nutritious food when they are hungry instead of consuming empty calories which unfortunately is a big part of the American diet.”
Dr. Patel adds that caffeine-rich drinks are empty calories and don’t have nutritional value for kids. “In that way, it is affecting a child's nutrition which could indirectly stunt their growth and affect how healthy their immune system is as well,” he says.
If kids consume caffeine in high amounts, Castle says that the effects could become toxic, which can cause an irregular heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. “Caffeine toxicity may cause a seizure or heart attack, but this is rare,” she adds.
There you have it: Caffeine doesn’t stunt growth, but it’s still best for kids—of any age—to keep it to a minimum. Maybe those Starbucks hangouts can relocate to the smoothie shop. It’s worth a shot, right?