Turn to the internet and you’ll find a host of different opinions. A weak coffee now and then is ok… Avoid coffee for under 12s… Steer clear of an espresso entirely before the age of 18.
For parents trying to do the best for their kids, it’s a confusing picture. We aim to de-mystify the topic by taking a look at the science behind the claims. And when we’re done, you’ll have everything you need to make informed decisions about your child’s coffee consumption.
Why worry about coffee at all?
We all know that caffeine is a drug. Indeed, the energy boost it provides is part of the reason coffee is so popular.
And while caffeine might not be addictive in the clinical sense, caffeine dependency is real – as anyone who can’t cope without their morning coffee knows only too well.
A habit-forming stimulant doesn’t sound like a great choice for kids. But it’s not just the coffee itself that’s an issue. A huge range of today’s coffee-based drinks include syrups, cream and chocolate, packing them with empty calories. And that’s before we get to the effects of refined sugar.
So should coffee be off the menu entirely for children? Let’s take a closer look at its components.
Caffeine and childhood development
For one, it’s widely claimed to suppress appetite. That’s no good for children, who need a full range of nutrients for healthy growth. Surely it’s hard enough to get them to eat their greens, without coffee making them less hungry!
But is it actually true?
In fact, the scientific evidence is unclear. An Australian study in 2013 found that caffeine had no effect on appetite at all. To be fair, the sample size there was small – just nine women.
But when in 2017 scientists reviewed all the available literature on caffeine and appetite, they found no clear link.
And if caffeine consumption really did suppress appetite, you’d expect to see the results in smaller children. However, when scientists at Penn State College of Medicine looked at caffeine intake and bone mineral gain and density in white teenage girls, they found no correlation.
As well as suppressing appetite, it’s claimed that the caffeine inhibits the absorption of calcium. Calcium is important for bone development. So drinking coffee means weaker bones in children – right?
A 2002 study found that, as long as people ingested the recommended amounts of calcium, there was no link between caffeine consumption and “bone status”. In other words, if you’re eating a balanced diet, caffeine won’t cause any problems for your bones.
The rumor that caffeine could impair children’s development seems to have started life as a marketing device. In the late nineteenth century, a caffeine-free drink called Postum was trying to knock coffee off its pedestal. Its solution was to blame coffee for all manner of childhood problems.
So is it all rumor and innuendo when it comes to the effects of caffeine on children?
Caffeine and wakefulness
Our need for sleep changes as we get older. Toddlers and pre-schoolers need up to 14 hours sleep, whilst 6 to 13 year olds need between 9 and 11 hours. Even 17 year olds need slightly more sleep than adults – between 8 and 10 hours a night.
Those greater requirements mean that if caffeine affects children’s sleep, it could be more damaging for them than for adults. So what effect does it actually have?
A 2006 study of American adolescents looked for a relationship between caffeine intake and problems sleeping. It found a direct link. Adolescents who consumed more coffee reported more difficulties sleeping and said they felt more tired in the morning.
But it might be argued that it’s all in the mind. If people expect that drinking coffee is going to keep them awake, perhaps that’s just what they think happens? Is there any way to be sure that’s really what’s going on?
Fortunately, there is. In 2015, a team of Swiss and American researchers used measurements of brain activity to look at sleep quality. They found that adolescents who consumed more caffeine went to bed later and enjoyed less deep sleep.
So it’s clear: drinking caffeinated coffee is likely to interfere with children’s sleep. Being tired is unpleasant enough, but it’s not the only potential result. There’s growing evidence that early sleep problems can predict psychological and emotional problems, and even obesity, in later life.
That, of course, is a long way from saying that children who drink coffee will grow up psychologically damaged! But it is a reminder of just how important sleep quality seems to be to childhood development.
So it’s only sensible to be cautious about your kids’ caffeine consumption. Remember too, that this doesn’t just mean avoiding coffee before bedtime. Caffeine can stay in the system for 8 hours, and children will be affected by lower doses than adults.
And keep in mind that it isn’t just coffee that contains caffeine. Cola, energy drinks and chocolate will all add to your child’s total intake.
So how much coffee is too much?
So what does that mean in practical terms?
It’s difficult to be precise. The exact caffeine content of a cup of coffee will vary depending on factors such as the variety of bean, brewing style and serving size. But taking a broad average, an 8 ounce cup of drip brewed coffee will contain around 95mg of coffee.
The average 7-year-old weighs roughly 23 kg. That means a limit of 57.5mg of caffeine per day – far less than in that single 8 ounce cup.
While the US government doesn’t publish guidelines on caffeine consumption by children, the Canadian government does. Its recommended limit of 62.5mg for 7-9 year olds is very similar to the findings of the review.
The thing to remember from all of this? The amounts of caffeine children can safely consume are low. If you’re going to let your kids drink coffee, keeping an eye on the serving size is essential. And remember, there are likely to be other sources of caffeine in their diet too.
Coffee and dental health
The acid in coffee can weaken tooth enamel and cause cavities. This is an even bigger problem for young children, as the enamel on new adult teeth takes years to harden.
The problems for children’s teeth get much worse, though, if they’re adding sugar to the coffee. Harmful bacteria in their mouth will feed on it and create more tooth-destroying acids. Sugar-laden fizzy drinks are the prime offender here – but drinking sugared coffee certainly won’t help.
And it’s not just about the coffee…
too much sugar has other, serious health implications. A 2013 study found that between 30 and 40 percent of American healthcare spending was on conditions linked to excess sugar consumption.
The effects on children are particularly concerning, ranging from hyperactivity to loss of appetite and even skin problems.
And if caffeine itself doesn’t affect your kids’ appetites, coffee laden with syrups, sugar and cream certainly will. So if you want them to tuck into the nutrient-packed meal you’ve carefully prepared, make sure they steer clear.
The science suggests that body mass is the best indicator for how much caffeine a child can safely consume. But monitoring total consumption is tricky, and the amounts for children are low. Steering clear of coffee altogether is the most straightforward approach.
But if your teen is desperate for a cup of Joe, sticking to the limit of 2.5mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is a sensible approach. Why not give them the information to control their own caffeine intake? You may find you get better results than trying to police it yourself.
Finally, remember the sugar and calories in syrup and cream-laden coffees. They can be just as damaging, if not more so, than caffeine.
We hope you’ve found this helpful. And if you have a question, please comment and let us know.
Kathy Gallo is the founder of https://www.dailycupo.com/. She is a health buff, she always believes that perfect health comes from drinking right, and aspires to provide an invaluable guide to the health drinks.