Once wrongly thought to stunt a child’s growth, coffee is now looked upon differently by parents who accept that it is okay, perhaps even healthy, for their child to drink the elixir that so many Americans consume throughout the day.
In fact, coffee consumption for children under 5 is not uncommon in some countries where it is accepted as part of the culture.
A study published last year in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that kids and young adults ages 2 to 22 are getting their daily fix of caffeine from java jolts, with their caffeine intake from coffee reaching 24% in 2010, up from 10% a decade ago.
Now comes a new study in which researchers report that many infants and toddlers in Boston – perhaps extending into all of the United States – are increasingly being fed coffee. Among 1-year-olds, the rate of coffee consumption was 2.5 percent, however, it jumped to 15 percent by the time they reached the age of 2.
Also, a 2013 study published in London’s International Journal of Obesity reported that 2-year-olds who drank coffee, or even tea, had three times the chances of being obese by the time they attend kindergarten, also increasing their risk of type 1 diabetes. And, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has reported roughly 1,200 cases a year of caffeine toxicity in children younger than age 6.
What are the implications?
“I am seeing many more families coming into the office with everyone holding some sort of caffeinated beverage,” says Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. John O’Reilly. “The parents stop at a coffee shop to get a hot coffee for themselves, while the kids come out with colorful caffeine and sugar-loaded smoothie drinks. Like many products marketed to children, the colors and the taste are appealing, but the amount of sugar and calories hidden within them could lead to obesity and metabolic problems as they grow older.”
Who hasn’t heard a friend or someone else say that their “heart is racing” or they “have the jitters” from drinking too much coffee?
So, what is it doing to kids of all ages?
“There is much research being done on brain development, but we do not yet know what the impact of increasing caffeine consumption on the infant brain will be. As anyone who drinks a strong cup of coffee knows, caffeine is a very potent brain stimulant. The brain of an infant is constantly changing and evolving in response to external and internal stimuli. As more and more infants are being exposed to caffeine, we need to study how that exposure might change the structures and connections within the developing brain. These changes may have a profound impact on how that infant learns and lives as he or she grows older,” said Dr. O’Reilly.
Even in moderate doses, the effects of caffeine, considered a stimulant, can increase a child’s difficulty falling asleep, as well as the risk of headaches, dizziness, and even depression. Caffeine can also cause dehydration and slow the absorption of calcium which is needed for strong teeth and bones.
The Baystate pediatrician notes he is seeing more and more children identified by their parents as having sleep problems, citing the increasing amount of children’s caffeine consumption and the greater amount of time they spend in front of various screens (TV, phones, tablets, and computers) as likely adding to the growing problem.
“I don’t think parents are aware of the potential health risks of these sugary, caffeinated drinks. Just as we raised awareness of tobacco use as a public health problem, we need to do a better job of raising awareness about the potential health risks of what we are giving our children to eat and drink. The same way it would be unthinkable now to have a parent give their child a cigarette, perhaps after 10 years of more research and public awareness campaigns, it will be rare for a parent to give their toddler a super-sized, sugary and caffeine-filled beverage,” says Dr. O’Reilly.