Caffeine has been picking people up for centuries and its popularity continues today. Many of us rely on that morning cup of Joe to jumpstart the day.

Recent research has revealed this country's favorite stimulant seems to have health benefits, too. Caffeine, and the antioxidants in coffee, has anti-cancer and cardio-protective properties. Studies have also linked it to reducing the risk of diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's—great reasons to justify java!

But in spite of all the buzz, children's health experts worry that what appears to be beneficial for adults is harming the younger generation. "Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant that affects brain chemistry and the cardiovascular system," explains Stephen Cook, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Golisano Children's Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, NY.

Dr. Cook has treated numerous children for the adverse affects of too much caffeine. "Children are admitted to the emergency room complaining of pounding migraine headaches, unusual heart palpitations and feeling jittery. These symptoms always seem connected drinking too many sports (or energy) drinks."

When Caffeine Becomes Dangerous

The potential dangers of caffeine have prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to take action. The AAP recommended eliminating stimulant-containing energy drinks from a child's diet in 2011.

"These products, which frequently have high and unregulated amounts of caffeine in them, are aggressively marketed to young children and parents should know how much caffeine their kids are consuming," says Cook.

Currently, there is no recommended level of caffeine for kids in the U.S. but Cook says less than 100 mg a day (roughly the equivalent of a 5 oz. cup of coffee) is likely safe, depending on the size and weight of your child. Canada, however, recently released guidelines limiting preschool children to 45mg of caffeine daily.

Melissa Mattison, Pharm D, clinical assistant professor at Western New England University in Springfield, MA cautions parents about the surprising sources of caffeine including yogurt, ice cream, gum and even caffeine-infused sunflower seeds.

"Parents assume clear soda is safe. Not so," says Mattison. For instance, Sprite doesn't contain caffeine but Mountain Dew has 55 mg in a 12 oz. can. Other caffeine traps: Coffee flavored ice cream and frozen yogurt contain between 40 and 60 mg per cup, depending on the brand.

The addictive property in caffeine should not be taken lightly. "A young child who is accustomed to caffeine can easily get to the point of experiencing headaches when he goes without it," explains Cook.

Energy drinks are reportedly consumed by 30 to 50 percent of adolescents and young adults and become a toxic cocktail when mixed with alcohol—a popular fad.

According to the AAP, of the 5,448 caffeine overdoses reported in 2007, 46 percent occurred in those younger than 19 years.

"Approximately half of the energy drink related ER visits associated patients aged 18 to 25 involved combinations of energy drinks with alcohol or other drugs," notes professor Mattison.

What Parents Can Do

Until scientists learn more about the risks of caffeine for children, Cook advises parents to limit it. "Caffeine can disrupt neural development, alter sleep patterns and lead to abnormalities in behavior and socialization," he says adding that it can also exacerbate anxiety and depression in children with mental health issues.

Cook says parents should make note of caffeine-related symptoms and urges families to return to basics. "Having a soda once in a while is okay but energy drinks don't have a role in the life of a child, period," he says. Childhood is a time of immense bone growth and development and energy drinks may interfere with health on another level, too-proper nutrition.

"Children should be drinking milk and getting an adequate amount of vitamin D and calcium from other sources, too," the pediatrician reminds parents. "Rest is also important and caffeine can alter sleep patterns."

Since caffeine is not a nutrient, but rather a natural chemical found in food, the FDA doesn't require it to be listed on nutrition labels—unless it's added to a food. However, Cook advises parents to beware of products that claim to boost memory or energy level.

"I have to believe that products making these claims contain a stimulant such as caffeine. Kids just don't need it," says Dr. Cook.

Stephen R. Cook, MD, MPH, and Melissa Jean Mattison, Pharm D, reviewed this article.




Interview with Stephen Cook, MD, and Melissa Mattison, Pharm D, Clinical Assistant Professor

The American Academy of Pediatrics

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration