Parenting can be a caffeine-fueled journey, from late-night baby soothing to surviving teen curfews. As our children grow up, their caffeine consumption often grows too. That can be tricky, especially for tweens and teens who see friends – and parents – consuming a lot of caffeine.
Kali Broussard, MD, pediatrician and pediatric infectious diseases specialist with Our Lady of Lourdes Children’s Health who came home to practice in Maurice, shares the scoop on how caffeine impacts the developing minds and bodies of our teens and tweens in this ParentingU podcast episode.
The Caffeine Landscape
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 12 avoid any caffeine.
For those 12 and older, the daily limit is about 100 milligrams of caffeine, which is the equivalent of one cup of coffee, one and a half shots of espresso, or four sodas.
“We know that there’s more than just caffeine in those sodas that is not good for their bodies,” Dr. Broussard says. With all the extra sugars and processed chemicals – caffeine may not be the worst thing in a soft drink.
Energy drinks are a popular way teens may be ingesting caffeine that should be approached with caution. Many may include more than the recommended daily serving of caffeine.
“Energy drinks are loaded with tons of other chemicals and vitamins, so we don’t know exactly what is in each drink. They should be avoided as best you can,” Dr. Broussard says.
Impact on Growing Bodies and Developing Brains
Why the caution about how much caffeine kids consume?
Studies have linked caffeine use in kids to mood swings, increased risk for depression and anxiety, and even interference with brain development.
“Caffeine can actually influence the way synapses in their brains grow,” Dr. Broussard says. “Whenever your brain is growing, it’s making all these connections. And when you ingest a lot of caffeine – more than three times a week – it actually inhibits the way synapses connect as children are growing.”
Caffeine Benefits – And Sleep Impacts
Caffeine is a stimulant. “It does have positive benefits in that it can keep you awake or make you feel awake, but that’s really where the benefits stop,” Dr. Broussard says.
That caffeine perk feeling of alertness is brief, lasting for about five hours. “So if you don’t want to be awake more than five hours after that, I would not advise caffeine late in the day.”
Teens should stop consuming caffeine at least six hours before they need to go to bed.
“This will lead to a better night’s sleep, and they may feel more rested the next day,” Dr. Broussard says. “It’s this constant cycle of getting your sleep and hopefully not needing more and more caffeine as the day goes on.”
Avoiding screen time before bed can also improve sleep and reduce teens’ reliance on caffeine.
Caffeine can also increase your heart rate, which isn’t ideal – especially for children. “Depending on how much you take in, you can be anxious with a racing heart,” Dr. Broussard says. “And it’s hard to function or take a test when your heart’s beating out of your chest.”
You Set the Tone on Caffeine Use
Dr. Broussard recommends parents lead by example, knowing caffeine is just one of many conversations along our parenting journey. And the best way to deal with those conversations is with true connection.
“Give them the opportunity to really talk and be open and honest about (their caffeine use),” Dr. Broussard says. “Having an open, honest conversation with your kids saying, ‘Hey, I know you’re tired. I’m tired. What can we do together to make sure that we’re not so tired the next day?’”
Problem solving together is always an effective parenting strategy.
“It’s hard because they see us needing our coffee every day, and we’ve all learned to run on less and less sleep.”
Dr. Broussard says that is really the root of the problem: “Children aren’t sleeping enough, adults aren’t sleeping enough.” Getting more sleep can help reduce teens’ desire or need to consume caffeine.
She recommends parents do their best to get appropriate sleep and avoid drinking energy drinks themselves.
Recognizing Warning Signs?
The big question: how can parents know if their teen or tween is consuming too much caffeine?
Dr. Broussard jokes that money is one way to know: energy drinks are expensive, so you’ll likely know if your teen is drinking a lot of them. “If your kids are spending a lot on caffeine, you know they’re using it pretty hard,” she says. A truck bed full of empties is another sign your teen may be consuming too many.
“You may notice that your teen is more irritable when they don’t have their caffeine. You may notice they’re complaining of headaches more frequently,” Dr. Broussard says. “They’re actually going through caffeine withdrawal.”
Those headaches can also be tied to dehydration when they replace normal water intake with caffeinated drinks. “It’s this horrible cycle of: I feel tired. I have a headache. I need my caffeine, and now I’m more dehydrated and more tired the next day,” she says.
Ease the Caffeine Cutback Transition
Parents can help their child get to the other side of cutting back on caffeine by helping them manage those withdrawal symptoms.
“I would have them hyperhydrate, so push lots and lots of fluids those days,” Dr. Broussard says. Follow with the recommended dose of ibuprofen – or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (Download our ibuprofen and acetaminophen dosing guide) – to help with the headache. “Then sleep as much as you can those couple of days until you can get past that mountain of withdrawal.”
Better Choices for Caffeine Cravings
If you or your teen are looking for a caffeine fix, Dr. Broussard recommends less processed options.
“If you really need that caffeine, having a cup of coffee is OK for our teens. I would not add a whole bunch of sweeteners and sugars,” she says. “Be aware – are you trading caffeine for calories? You’re getting tons more calories than you need in a day just by drinking processed energy drinks. So there are other ways to get caffeine if your teen really feels like they need it.”
And for those who just love the taste of coffee, decaf can be a good option. Although it isn’t completely caffeine free, you’d have to drink a whole lot to get the same effects – positive and negative.
Our teens and tweens are regularly tempted by caffeine, but as parents we can guide them on a path of prioritizing long-term health over any momentary caffeine perk. Conversations with your pediatrician are a great support on this amazing journey we call parenting.