Effects of Caffeine on Children

Caffeine is a psychoactive substance widely consumed by kids as it is easy to get, is legal, and is contained within socially acceptable drinks. Children as young as 4 years of age are given caffeinated drinks regularly due to insufficient awareness of the effects of caffeine on the children’s physiology and behavior.

Several studies suggest that children may be particularly prone to the adverse effects of caffeine.

Common Sources of Caffeine

While caffeine is naturally found in coffee, tea, and chocolate, it is added to cold and flu remedies, energy drinks, and soft drinks such as cola.

To offer some perspective, there is 100 mg of caffeine in a mug of instant coffee, and about 140 mg in a cup of filter coffee. A mug of tea has about 75 mg, and a can of cola has 40 mg of caffeine. A 250 mL can of energy drink has nearly 80 mg, and a 50 g-bar of plain chocolate has close to 25 mg of caffeine.

So between a few colas, energy drinks, and chocolate, kids can easily ingest a few-100 mg of caffeine in a day.

Image Credit: Dima Sobko / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Dima Sobko / Shutterstock

Why Limit Caffeine Intake in Children?

  • Research shows that kids who consume one or more artificially sweetened soft drinks daily are at 6% higher risk of becoming obese
  • Drinking caffeinated beverages with added sugar can cause dental cavities and enamel erosion
  • Caffeinated drinks are full of empty calories, and kids who drink them regularly miss out on crucial vitamins and minerals they get from healthy food
  • Being a diuretic, caffeine causes elimination of water from the body, and thus dehydration. In warm climates, when kids sweat a lot and need extra fluids, it is best to avoid caffeine to prevent dehydration
  • Caffeine can make heart or nerve disorders worse, and kids might not even know if they are at risk of such disorders
  • Drastic reduction in caffeine intake can cause withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, headaches, and muscle aches

What is Caffeine Sensitivity?

Caffeine causes arousal and increased locomotor activity. Several studies show that caffeine produces some behavioral effects by interacting with the dopaminergic system. Depending on the dose, caffeine consumption affects attention, mood, and physiology.

While moderate doses of about 200 – 300 mg caffeine were shown to enhance cognitive performance and concentration, create a feeling of well-being, and boost energy; high doses of more than 400 mg caffeine were shown to cause nausea, anxiety, and nervousness.

Kids are generally more sensitive to caffeine compared to adults, and can feel the adverse effects for nearly 6 hours. This is because the smaller the person, lesser the amount of caffeine they need to consume to produce the adverse effects of caffeine sensitivity. Again, the more the caffeine intake, the higher the caffeine dose needed to produce these effects over time.

Studies show that regular caffeine consumers can develop some tolerance to the adverse effects, but not to the positive, mood elevating effects of caffeine which could result in increased caffeine intake.

According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2010, 75% of children who participated in a survey consumed caffeine every day, and the more the consumption the more awake they were.

Moreover, according to reports from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, approximately 1,200 cases of caffeine toxicity in children under 6 years of age is reported every year.

Similarly, a 1995 NASA experiment on spiders who consumed caffeine and those who did not, showed that the web built by the caffeinated spiders were much less functional and neat compared to those formed by the caffeine-free spiders.

Image Credit: NASA Tech Briefs
Image Credit: NASA Tech Briefs

Children being very sensitive to chemicals, caffeine consumption affects their focus at school, and leads to poor information retention. As soft drink and energy drinks become more and more popular among kids, they need to know how caffeine in the drinks they love affects their brain and behavior, and causes obesity.

They also need to be made aware of the fact that caffeine does not provide any nutrients such as protein or calcium, and we do not need it to stay healthy.

Some tips for reducing caffeine intake in kids include encouraging them to drink juice, water, or decaffeinated coffee / tea, and cutting down on energy drinks high in caffeine.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018

Susha Cheriyedath

Written by

Susha Cheriyedath

Susha is a scientific communication professional holding a Master's degree in Biochemistry, with expertise in Microbiology, Physiology, Biotechnology, and Nutrition. After a two-year tenure as a lecturer from 2000 to 2002, where she mentored undergraduates studying Biochemistry, she transitioned into editorial roles within scientific publishing. She has accumulated nearly two decades of experience in medical communication, assuming diverse roles in research, writing, editing, and editorial management.


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