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Should Kids Be Allowed to Have Caffeine?

Many parents have strange approaches to giving their kids caffeine. On one hand, we do not think of coffee and even tea as being appropriate beverages for young children, yet on the other hand, many parents allow their children to drink soft drinks practically to their hearts’ content. And while soft drinks are lower in caffeine than coffee, they have a good amount of it, and they deliver all the caffeine-related effects that coffee does. So while caffeine is not the worst thing in the world, parents should be aware of how it affects kids so they can make informed decisions.

What does caffeine do?
First, it is important to realize that caffeine affects children more intensely than it does adults. Of course, this is simply because children are smaller. A 180-pound grownup will feel the effects of caffeine much less than a 60-pound child. So, for all the effects that caffeine has on all of us, think of them as doubled for children.

The following symptoms of excess caffeine can affect grownups as well as kids, but they can be triggered in children by relatively small amounts of the substance:

•    Difficulty sleeping, possibly including insomnia and night terrors
•    Nausea
•    Headaches
•    Difficulty focusing on tasks
•    Excessive heart rate
•    Excessive blood pressure
•    Nervousness, anxiety, and emotional volatility

As grownups we can usually recognize such symptoms, and it is easy to dismiss them because we know the causes. But for kids, these things are likely to have more of an unconscious effect, triggering a sense of overall irritability, malaise, and bad temper. And of course, the more caffeine a child has, the worse it is likely to be.

Other issues
Aside from the immediate side effects, that are many other things that parents should know about caffeine’s effects on children, including the following:

•    Caffeinated drinks, especially soft drinks, are associated with elevated risk of childhood obesity. In fact, many medical experts blame the popularity of soft drinks for the childhood obesity epidemic that is now affecting so many children.
•    Caffeinated beverages contain huge amounts of sugar, which means they are terrible for the teeth. With their syrupy texture, they tend to stick to the teeth and the gums and can sit there for hours, contributing to cavities and other problems.
•    Caffeine can make medical problems worse. For instance, if a child has nervous disorders or heart problems, having even one soda can make things worse.
•    Caffeine leads to dehydration. And, again, the effects are more intense for children than for grownups. In hot weather, especially, the dehydration associated with caffeine can greatly contribute to many problems.
•    Conscious parents naturally shy away from giving their children addictive substance, yet caffeine qualifies, and it can actually be intensely addictive. Believe it or not, a huge proportion of American kids are already hooked to caffeine and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they have to go without.

Do kids need caffeine?
The simple fact is that there is just no reason why kids should have to have caffeine. It has no nutritional value, and it is easily avoided with a little effort. The key is for parents to cut it out themselves, and especially to keep all soft drinks out of the house. These can be replaced with healthy juices, milk, and, of course, water.

But one does not have to be so extreme. There is nothing wrong with having a soda every now and then, and teenagers can even have coffee. (Despite the widespread myth, coffee does not stunt growth.) For parents, the most important thing is to monitor kids’ caffeine intake. Remember that it is an addictive substance and that one occasional drink can easily become several a day. So make sure you take charge and set limits.

By Lisa Pecos

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