The Lowdown on Caffeine for Children


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The vast majority of parents wouldn't dream of offering their child a drug, even if that drug came from a natural source. Yet many parents unknowingly do exactly that on a daily basis, because they don't realize caffeine is a stimulant and considered a drug.

There's no compelling reason to give children caffeine, and there is evidence suggesting it should be limited or completely removed from their diet. While it may not be easy to tell what contains caffeine and how much is involved, it's a good idea to become caffeine-savvy. By identifying caffeinated snacks and beverages, you can easily limit or remove them from your child's diet.

"As a general rule, it is best to try to keep your children caffeine-free," says Dr. Maria Kelly, a pediatric professor at the University of Florida. "Keeping your children caffeine-free is an achievable goal. The easiest way to accomplish it is to eliminate all sodas. Try to offer healthier choices, like water, milk, flavored waters and 100-percent fruit juice."

Caffeine is found naturally in products like chocolate, cocoa, tea, coffee and kola (cola) nuts. It also has been added to many products, including energy drinks, some sodas and medications. Sodas are the most obvious, but when kids eat chocolate bars, or drink chocolate milk or hot cocoa, they also are consuming caffeine.

The effects of caffeine

Because caffeine is a stimulant, it usually perks people up within about 15 minutes of consumption. Most adults relate to this by recalling how they don't feel quite up to speed before having their morning cup of coffee.

In children, caffeine has the same impact. According to the National Institutes of Health, it has many effects on the metabolism, including stimulating the central nervous system. Caffeine can interact with other drugs, so it's especially important you know what medication your child is taking. Some people may have caffeine sensitivities and experience its effects in a more pronounced way.

Caffeine negatively impacts the body and offers no nutritive value. In addition, it can act as an appetite suppressant, leading to children not wanting to eat their food, and it has diuretic properties that can contribute to dehydration.

"Caffeine in the diet of your children can cause an upset stomach, headaches, jitteriness, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and even cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure," Kelly says. "Consumption of caffeinated beverages also has been shown to increase the risk of obesity and dental cavities/decay. It can even potentially aggravate undiagnosed heart and neurological problems."

How much is too much

Most toddlers love candy and chocolate milk. Some young children regularly drink sweet tea, especially those living in the South, and some parents allow their kids to drink sodas that contain caffeine. How much is too much?

Katty Beard Wozniak, a Florida mom of two toddlers, ages 4 and 2, takes steps to limit her children's caffeine consumption. "I do allow my 4-year-old son to have a Coke on occasion, as a treat, but we do not have it in the house, and he is not allowed to have it at school," she says. "My 2-year-old daughter has never had anything with caffeine in it, and she drinks juice as a treat."

Wozniak realized there was a problem when her son asked for more and more of the soda she was drinking. "I soon realized it was a mistake to let him take a sip," she says. "The sip turned into a bigger sip, which then turned into wanting his own Coke."

She has since learned not to order a beverage for herself that she wouldn't want her kids to have. Doing so just adds frustration and makes the forbidden drink seem that much more appealing to the child, she says. She also never offers sodas as an option when the family dines out; she simply gives her son a choice of milk, juice or water.

The United States currently does not have caffeine consumption guidelines for children. Canada does. Canadian health officials suggest preschoolers get no more than 45 milligrams per day, which is about the average for a standard soda or 1.5 ounces of chocolate.

If you have a toddler who is routinely consuming caffeine and you want to reduce or eliminate it, make sure you are aware of the effects of withdrawal. Regular use builds a tolerance and dependency in the body. When you remove it, the body experiences a sluggish period that may be accompanied by headaches and irritability. This will, however, go away after several days.

Caffeine is readily available everywhere you go, and you need to decide if it is something you want to eliminate, or limit, for your children. Knowing what it is, where it's found and how it impacts the body is the essential first step.

Jacqueline Bodnar lives in Florida with her husband and two children.

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