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What’s the Buzz About Kids and Caffeine?

My daughter doesn’t sleep well. It drives me nuts, though I can’t blame her, since I was a rotten sleeper as a kid, too. In an effort to make her nights more soporific, I’ve tried lavender pillows, chamomile tea, and the like. Nothing seemed to help much, that is, until I started barring sugar, especially chocolate, from her late-afternoon diet. Chocolate is about the only caffeine eight-year-old Bella has, but I thought it might be affecting her. Years ago, I went sugar-, caffeine-, and alcohol-free for a summer, and when I reintroduced each one, it took the smallest amount to zing me.

It turned out that this small change in diet had a pretty big effect. Bella, though still a night owl by nature, sleeps better now. Her mood has improved too, which isn’t a surprise, given that most adults know that drinking too much coffee can lead to a jittery, irritable mood. I’ve picked some of my best fights after having had an inadvisable second or third cup. Kids can feel the same way and more so, since their bodies are smaller and still changing. Yet rarely are behavioral problems tied to the copious amounts of caffeine many youngsters ingest throughout the day. Just how much caffeine is too much?

A Sweet Rush
Today, children are getting more caffeine that ever. The soft drink that was an occasional treat for kids of an earlier generation is now a staple. According to a 2005 study in the journal Lancet, the average teen eats fast food meals twice a week and soft drinks are an integral part of such meals. And now, kids drink more soda than milk. The Journal of the American Diet Association says that American boys under eighteen drink more than two cans of soda a day.

And it’s not just soda. Caffeine is in “jolting” candy bars, chewing gum, energy bars, and sports drinks. The beverage market, especially, has exploded in recent years, with products that appeal to children through their packaging and names, such as Rock Star, Jolt, and Surge. These energy drinks sometimes have up to three times the amount of caffeine that’s in a normal cup of coffee. We are also raising a generation of coffee connoisseurs. They’ve grown up with Starbucks and know the lingo of the espresso bar like their grandparents knew that of the malt shop. In their lattes and frappacinos, they not only get whopping amounts of calories, sugar, and fat, but also hefty doses of caffeine. It seems that chains such as Caribou Coffee must have teenagers in mind with drinks like the Turtle Mocha, which has 508 calories and 64 grams of sugar on top of 180 milligrams of caffeine.

A Cup of Concern
Is this all bad? No one seems to know for sure, though moderation is the advice experts give to parents. Many doctors believe that the 200 milligrams of caffeine in one cup of brewed coffee is probably not harmful to older kids. However, some behavioral problems have been linked to caffeine consumption in younger kids. In a study of twenty first-graders, researchers at the Chicago Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation measured the hyperactivity on an afternoon after students drank caffeine compared to one when they didn’t. They found that on the days that kids drank caffeinated soda—sometimes less than a can—they scored higher on hyperactivity measurements like restlessness, being sassy, and attention getting behavior. These effects remained even after sugar was taken account. Some researchers also feel that excessive caffeine consumption can mimic symptoms of ADD.

More worrisome is the regularity with which many kids are getting caffeine (not to mention high fructose corn syrup). Just like adults, kids can become addicted to it. They experience headaches and have difficulty concentrating when regular consumers go without. Unlike adults, however, they can’t always control their access to caffeine. It seems better not to allow kids to become hooked rather than to put them at risk of hyperactivity, anxiousness, or withdrawal symptoms. And if they become addicted to caffeine as kids, where will they be as young adults? One woman I spoke with says her parents let her start drinking coffee in elementary school and by high school, she was up to ten cups a day!

One Cup, Not Fifteen
In addition to teaching moderation, it’s important to help kids understand the benefits and drawbacks of caffeine, as well as the foods and beverages that contain it. A Big Gulp Mellow Yellow, for example, has as much caffeine as a drip coffee. Bottled teas usually hover around the forty milligram mark, while energy drinks like Full Throttle and Monster Energy have around 150 milligrams. But in addition to coffee, tea, energy drinks, and sodas—the obvious culprits—herbal stimulants such as guarana, yerba mate, and kola nuts contain caffeine, as does so-called decaf coffee and tea, chocolate, some brands of root beer, and coffee flavoring that appears in ice creams and yogurts.

Many women abstain from caffeine during their pregnancies or greatly reduce their consumption. A study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology warned that women who drink two or more cups of coffee a day during pregnancy run twice the risk of miscarriage as those who avoid caffeine. I tried to abstain, but my love of a hot pot of black tea got the better of me, and after my first trimesters, I had a cup a day. Now, I wonder if that had anything to do with my daughter’s sleep habits. More so, though, I wonder why I —or any parent—would let my kids have something that I tried to avoid when I was pregnant. I don’t let them smoke or drink alcohol, after all. As Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths told The Nation, “A lot of kids already have chaotic lives. Do children need a pharmacological destabilizer on top of that?”

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