Kids and Coffee: What Parents Should Know

By Catherine Gregory

My two teenagers love to meet up with friends at local coffee shops to “do homework,” a.k.a socialize. I’m not too worried about their grades, but I am concerned about the caffeine they consume. How much coffee is safe for kids, and could they become addicted or suffer unwanted side effects?

In a 2010 study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found that 75 percent of children between ages 5 and 12 consumed caffeine on a daily basis. This was not just from coffee drinks, but from other popular sources of caffeine like chocolate, tea, soda and energy drinks. The older they were, the more caffeine they consumed, with 8- to 12-year-olds averaging 109 mg a day, the amount of three 12-ounce cans of soda.

How Much Is Too Much?

Unlike U.S. agencies, Health Canada makes caffeine recommendations: No more than 400 milligrams per day for healthy adults; and for kids, 45 milligrams for ages 4–6; 62.5 milligrams for ages 7–9; and 85 milligrams for ages 10–12, which is equivalent to a full shot of espresso or an 8-ounce cup of most brewed coffee. But be aware that caffeine amounts vary depending on the brewing process. Starbucks brewed coffee has 180 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup in comparison. Mochas, lattes and chai drinks generally range around 75 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup, which is better; but then there are the empty calories and large amounts of sugar to consider in most of those drinks.

Lorraine Caron, a naturopathic doctor in Fort Collins, Colorado, believes kids drink coffee and other caffeinated drinks for the same reason adults do: energy, image, socialization and because they like the taste. “In very moderate amounts, I don’t think coffee is a problem for kids,” she says. “For a teenager, this might be around a cup of regular coffee each day, earlier in the day. For a younger child, maybe a half cup or less.”

Caron notes that most teens are sleep deprived because of early mornings getting to school and staying up late to do homework at night. “They need 910 hours of sleep per night compared to 78 for adults. We set them up for fatigue, and many of them use caffeine to compensate.”

Caffeine affects kids and adults similarly, although children are more sensitive to its effects because their bodies are smaller and their brains are still developing. At lower levels, caffeine can make people feel more alert and energetic, which may help if your child is studying for an exam. In some research, there is evidence that coffee may help stop a headache, boost mood and even prevent cavities.

Coaching Your Kids around Caffeine

Although there are some upsides to caffeine consumption, too much can cause jitters and nervousness, upset stomach, headaches, troubles sleeping, increased heart rate and high blood pressure. For most adults like me who drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks, we know caffeine is addictive and don’t want our children to get hooked. Here’s what Caron suggests parents can do:

    • Talk with your kids about the potential health risks of caffeine, especially from energy drinks and sugary coffee drinks.

    • Model healthy caffeine intake. If you’re a 6-cup-a-day coffee drinker, your kids see that.

    • Do whatever it takes to make sure kids get the sleep they need so they don’t need the daily energy boost from caffeine.

    • Find out what it is about coffee that they like—is it the energy, the social support, the taste? See if there are healthier alternatives they can choose some of the time.

    • Set limits, particularly for children and younger teens. If you’re not sure what those limits should be, talk with your child’s doctor.