The Drinking Age of Coffee

It used to be that kids considered drinking coffee just one more thing that adults did all day at work, or at home between household chores. As children, most of us sampled the bitter stuff that our parents had in their cups at breakfast, and wanted nothing to do with it. However, coffee drinking has increasingly become a social activity, with gourmet coffees available in trendy coffeehouses, and flavored coffees offered at fast food restaurants. Now more than ever before, parents are faced with determining what age it is safe to allow your child to drink caffeinated beverages.

The Increasing Popularity of Coffee Among Kids
Coffee is being marketed to kids both directly through advertising that makes coffee look more like a milkshake or sundae (complete with chocolate syrup and sprinkles), or indirectly by young celebs out and about in LA or New York with tall mocha lattes. The TV hit Gilmore Girls’ mother and daughter were rarely seen walking around their quaint New England village without their matching cups of coffee. Kids are now just as likely to hang out at a coffeehouse as a burger place in their free time, if not more so.

Coffee represents a coming of age – more adult than sodas or fruit beverages. Chances are, your child will ask you to order a coffee for them the next time you are in line at your favorite coffeehouse. So is it safe, and if so, when?

Some Myths and Facts About Coffee
The old wives’ tale that coffee stunts growth has long ago been disproven. That likely originated from early studies that associated high intake of caffeinated beverages with reduced bone mass. However, that bone mass has been found to be minimal, and easily overcome by increased calcium.

A study that tracked 81 adolescents for six years found that even those who had the highest daily caffeine intake had no less bone gain or bone density than those with the lowest intake. A 2009 article by CBS News quotes a nutritionist specialist at the Mayo Clinic who said that moderation (one or two cups a day) is the key. In fact, soda that contains caffeine and sugar is a bigger problem. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also preaches moderation.

The Importance of Monitoring Overall Caffeine Intake
Coffee contains a lot of caffeine. However, it is necessary to look at the total amount of caffeine your child consumes, including caffeinated soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate, tea, and coffee, as well as medications like aspirin and some cold pills.

In both adults and children, caffeine is quickly absorbed into the body, making its way to the nervous system. It can have negative side effects, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, agitation, hyperactivity, and digestive problems. While it can increase energy, it can also impact a person’s ability to concentrate. Therefore, it is important to watch for these symptoms in your child if he or she does drink coffee or any caffeinated drinks.

Some Basic Guidelines
Children are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than adolescents and adults because they are smaller and have had less exposure to it. It is generally recommended that children under 12 avoid caffeine or at least limit its intake. As they enter their teens, most kids can consume up to two caffeinated drinks daily, as long as they do not replace healthy caffeine-free beverages. Parents should watch to see if their child experiences negative symptoms.

As with adults, it is best for young people to avoid caffeine close to bedtime. Parents should also monitor the “extras” that come with coffee, such as sugar, whipped cream, syrup, sprinkles, and other toppings. Look at the calorie count, and the amount of sugar and fat in the drink. A cup of coffee to stay awake to study or to keep up with sports and extracurricular activities should not become a habit. It is better to develop healthy study and sleep routines rather than rely on caffeine to stay awake to study or finish a paper at the last minute.

Model Good Coffee Drinking
Parents can model responsible caffeine use for their children. If they rarely see you without a cup of coffee in your hand, it is harder to convince them to limit their own coffee drinking. Even if your children are too young to drink coffee or have shown no interest, it’s never too early to model healthy consumption of coffee. That way, if and when they begin drinking it, they will learn to appreciate a cup or two every day for the taste rather than depend on it.

It is likely just fine to share your favorite coffee with your teen occasionally, as long as you do not notice any negative side effects. If your favorite coffee is espresso, you probably want to be a little more careful with that. The best coffees do not need extra flavoring or toppings, so if your child wants to start drinking coffee, take the opportunity to expose them to the great coffees that are available.


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