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We generally consider coffee to be an adult pleasure. It has its place in the mornings preceding busy days, late into the night when you’re cramming for a university exam, on the kitchen counter of every office, during casual meetups with friends. But then the day comes when your 11-year old wanders into your home office asking if they can have a sip of your coffee. Can they? Should they?

When I was a kid, I coveted the drink that my grandmother made whenever her friends came over. I coveted the coffee-soaked biscuits that they were enjoying while I was forced to settle for orange juice and dry, unsoaked biscuits. When I was a kid, they would tell me that if I drank coffee, I’d grow a tail.

Obviously, your child won’t grow a tail if they have coffee, but there’s a good reason why we get asked this question so often. The main ingredient in coffee is caffeine, which has psychoactive and physiological effects on the body. If it gives adults that kick they need in the morning, what does it do to kids? Let’s take a look at what scientific research and experts have to say about kids drinking coffee in terms of whether they should, when they can, and what the limit should be.

Coffee, Caffeine, and Kids

The main active ingredient in coffee that causes concern over child use is caffeine. While it’s a myth that caffeine can stunt growth, there are other reasons why the young, developing brains and bodies of kids won’t benefit from drinking coffee. Rather, caffeine can cause some harm when consumed at an early age.

To begin with, there’s really not too much research on the extensive consumption of caffeine in children because, duh, who is going to force kids to do something potentially dangerous? However, there is enough research and expert opinion for us to get a general idea of what the problems are with exposing kids to caffeine.

Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, and cacao. Less naturally, kids have access to caffeine through soda and energy drinks. Still, caffeine itself has proven to have some positive effects on the adult body. For instance, moderate coffee drinking has been directly associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. It can even reduce the risk of some types of cancer or developing type 2 diabetes. However, the first problem is that these benefits haven’t been proven to apply to children drinking coffee.

The second problem is that caffeine is a drug. Sure, it’s the world’s favorite drug and one of the safest ones you can enjoy – but it is nonetheless a drug. As it’s a stimulant, the psychoactive effect that caffeine has on the brain is keeping it alert and concentrated. However, this can also have negative side effects, especially on children.

kid with coffee cup
That’d better be milk in her cup.

The Negative Side Effects of Caffeine on Children

A 2017 report by the USA National Coffee Association showed that about 37% of youths between 13 and 18 years of age consume coffee on a daily basis. But what can caffeine do to the developing, adolescent body and brain? Here are some of the potential negative benefits:

1. Disrupted sleep patterns and insomnia

Proper sleep is key for the growing, developing body of a child (child here includes adolescents, of course). Youths should be getting about 8 hours of undisturbed sleep every night to maximize their growth and development. However, teens that drink coffee regularly have reported sleeping less and waking up feeling much more tired in the morning. Plus, while adults have a higher threshold, kids can develop insomnia from drinking even less coffee regularly. If that’s the case for teens, imagine what high caffeine intake would do to a prepubescent child.

2. Psychological overstimulation and anxiety

According to research, while caffeine does improve concentration in children, it also increases their chances of developing anxiety. In fact, a study done on adolescent rats showed that increased caffeine intake during adolescence resulted in a higher risk of developing anxiety in adulthood. It also showed that early access to this stimulant increased the chances of rats seeking out more stimulating drugs later on in life.

If you’re saying rats aren’t people, you’re right. But oftentimes, science has been able to draw a connection between rat and human behavior – and that’s true in this case also. Research conducted on human young adults showed that increased caffeine intake from energy drinks can cause anxiety as well as a propensity to seeking other brain-stimulating drugs later in life.

It’s not all bad, though – there are certain doses of caffeine that have been deemed acceptable for kids – but we’ll get to that a bit later. First, let’s take a look at another problem that accompanies kid-coffee drinking which isn’t caffeine. Namely…

Coffee Beverages as Vessels for High Sugar Intake

One of the main issues with child and teen coffee drinking is the sugar that comes with a lot of the “special” coffees you’d get in places like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Fine, so there’s both caffeine and sugar in a can of Coke, but some of the coffee-based barista specials you get at these stores are much, much worse.

I remember when I first started drinking coffee as a teenager I was getting it in the form of a Frappuccino from Starbucks. My mother was very vocal against my new favorite drink, and apparently it was for good reason. A grande Caramel Cocoa Cluster Frappuccino at Starbucks has 68g of sugar! Can you imagine that much sugar in a single beverage? The total caloric count of this drink is 450 calories, which is nearly a quarter of the total daily intake for a child or young adult. Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, offers a Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin latte that has 55g of sugar. This is more than you’d get from a 16-oz serving of Coke. And unfortunately, these are the coffee-based drinks that kids are most commonly drawn to. They’re not (yet) fans of the nuanced bitter and bold flavors of coffee, so they get their caffeine fix in the form of unhealthily sweet desserts.

But let’s put this amount of sugar in some context. According to the American Heart Association, children older than 2 and below 18 shouldn’t consume more than 25g of added sugars per day. These drinks contain more than twice the maximum recommended value. The insane amounts of sugar that accompany these drinks can endanger a child’s health and at the same time increase their risk of developing childhood obesity.

The Bottom Line: Should Kids Drink Coffee?

This is where we get to the not-so-negative side of the answer. So far we’ve covered the possible negative effects that caffeine and coffee-based beverages can have on kids and teenagers. However, coffee, and indeed caffeine, isn’t the enemy. The answer to whether kids should be drinking coffee is the same answer given to most other dietary questions: the key is moderation.

While the AAP says that caffeine doesn’t have a nutritional place in a child’s diet, a little bit of coffee won’t hurt either. And really, when it comes to parenting, imposing too many restrictions can end up having an adverse effect on the child’s relationship to pleasures and experiences, or, worse yet, an adverse effect on the child’s relationship to the parent.

Experts say that in general, kids that don’t suffer from disrupted sleep patterns and aren’t showing early signs of anxiety can comfortably enjoy approximately one cup of coffee per day. This would be about an 8-oz cup of joe. As most adults should limit their intake to 200-300mg of caffeine on a daily basis, the number gets cut in half for kids. About 70-100mg of caffeine in a child’s daily diet (this should include soda or sport’s drinks – so there shouldn’t be both soda and coffee in a single day’s intake) will do just fine.

Still, if you can, it’s best to postpone introducing coffee to your kid’s diet as late in adolescence as possible. And sharing a few sips of your own cup of coffee with your kids won’t cause any problems, either.

A Few Words Before You Go…

The main question when it comes to kids and coffee arises from the ingredient in coffee we all love so much – caffeine. But it’s not just coffee that contains caffeine – it’s also soda and sport’s drinks to a lesser degree, and energy drinks to a higher degree. If anything, you should try to limit your child’s intake of energy drinks, as lots of studies have shown that they pose more of a threat to kids’ health than coffee. This can easily be attributed to the fact that they’re more marketable to children than coffee is.

When it comes to coffee, once your tween or teen starts showing interest in drinking coffee, try to keep them off sugary beverages loaded with calories and try to limit their intake to a single, modest cup containing no more than 100mg of caffeine per serving.

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