Kids Sweet on Caffeine, Mainly Soda

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Updated: 12/01/2012 10:51 pm

Dec. 16, 2010 -- Three-quarters of children aged 5 to 12 consume caffeine, and it may be keeping them up at night, according to a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Children aged 5 to 7 took in about 52 milligrams of caffeine per day, and children aged 8 to 12 had about 109 milligrams, the equivalent of nearly three 12-ounce cans of soda per day. That’s much higher than the amount of caffeine linked to effects in adults.

The more caffeine the children had, the less they slept, the new study showed. Caffeine was not associated with bed-wetting.

“I would suggest that parents simply be prudent and regulate the amount of caffeine their children consume,” says study author William J. Warzak, PhD, a professor of psychology in the department of pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical in Omaha. “They will not be the worse for wear if their caffeine consumption is restricted,” he says in an email. The caffeine in the children’s diet came mainly from soft drinks.

So what is a moderate amount of caffeine in a 5-year-old or 10-year-old? "I don't think we know the answer to that question,” he says.

“Most of the research into the health effects of caffeine has been with adults [and] there really is very little pertaining to children,” he says. “The FDA has not established recommended amounts of caffeine consumption in children, although the Canadian government has issued such guidelines and our respondents indicated that quite a few children push those limits.”

Warzak and colleagues surveyed 201 parents of children aged 5 to 12 from an urban outpatient pediatric clinic. Parents reported information about their child’s daily diet of different beverages and snacks. They also reported information on their child’s sleep and bed-wetting history.

Soda Linked to Childhood Obesity

Avram Traum, MD, a pediatric nephrologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, tells WebMD that the amount of caffeine children consumed in this and other studies is “shocking, staggering, and disturbing.”

The new study looked at how caffeine may affect sleep and bed-wetting, but drinking so much soda may also have an effect on obesity and diseases associated with obesity, including high blood pressure in children, he says.      

“There is no reason that school-aged children need caffeine. Period,” he says. The occasional cup of soda on a special occasion is OK, but children should not drink caffeine on a daily basis.

Poor Sleep Affects School Performance

“Sodas are junk food and have no nutritional value,” says Charles Shubin, MD, director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare, a division of Family Health Centers of Baltimore.

Poor sleep can affect school performance. “Sleep debt catches up and kids will fall asleep in school and not do their schoolwork,” he says. 

Shubin says the reason caffeine does not seem to increase bed-wetting is likely because children are not sleeping as deeply if they have caffeine, so they wake up to go to the bathroom.

Ihuoma U. Eneli, MD, medical director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is surprised at the amount of caffeine that children in the new study took in.

“I think that parents have to be a little more aware of what their kids are drinking,” she says. “Even diet soda has caffeine and some of the fancy drinks that middle schoolers and high schoolers drink also have a lot of caffeine,” she says.

Besides sleep problems, caffeine can produce anxiety symptoms, she tells WebMD.

"Children are getting less and less sleep over the last 50 years and are replacing it with caffeine consumption," says Heidi Connolly, MD, chief of the division of pediatric sleep medicine at University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

"The less you sleep the more likely you are to be overweight. This is proven in adults and likely true in children as well," she says.

Children aged 2 and above should drink water and low-fat milk. "Sugar beverages in general are a poor choice and those with caffeine are an even poorer choice," she tells WebMD. “The caffeine in one cola is a significant dose for a small child -- not to mention the calories."

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