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Effects of Caffeine on Children Under 12
Like Ritalin and cocaine, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and is considered a drug because of the affects it has on the human body. Also like Ritalin, caffeine is given to children in far greater quantities and on more numerous occasions than it should be. Contrary to what many people believe, caffeine is not just found in coffee and carbonated soft drinks. It is also in chocolate, ice cream, tea, hot cocoa, and many over-the-counter cold medicines, to name a few. There are no nutrients or vitamins in caffeine and most caffeinated foods/beverages are also lacking in any ingredients necessary for healthy nutritive intake.
The amount of caffeine required to affect a child is much smaller than that necessary to affect an adult, because caffeine's effects are based on body weight. Where the recommended maximum caffeine intake for an adult might be one to two cups of coffee, two 12-ounce soft drinks, or a 16-ounce glass of tea (including green tea, which also contains caffeine), this value is cut in half for the maximum a child should be consuming.
While nearly everyone understands the obvious "effects" of caffeine are that it increases alertness and diminishes the signs of lethargy, very few people - especially parents of children who consume excessive quantities of caffeine on a daily basis - really understand exactly how caffeine affects the human body.
According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 30% of ADULT caffeine users fulfill the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for drug dependence syndrome. Because children are affected twofold by caffeine due to their lesser body weight, that figure almost doubles to 60% for children who regularly consume caffeine. A single can of soda is sufficient to produce mood and behavioral effects and alternating cycles of withdrawal and stimulation and, in children, caffeine stimulates immature neurological systems beyond a child's ability to tolerate the stimulation.
The National Institute of Mental Health reported that over one-third of 8 to 13 year olds who regularly consumed a greater-than-normal dose of caffeine exhibit many of the diagnosing criteria for ADHD. For children ages 4 to 8, many that exhibited the symptoms of ADHD because of caffeine intake were actually misdiagnosed with the disorder and prescribed a drug that would not have been viewed as "necessary" if the child's parents were actually providing the child with a proper nutrition regime.
The phosphoric acid in caffeine causes bone fractures and tooth enamel breakdown, and the carbonation in most caffeinated beverages triggers acid reflux which can cause respiratory ailments including bronchitis and asthma. Caffeine is a diuretic, which causes water loss in the body and leads to dehydration. It also causes mineral loss which leads to decreased bone mass. For children, whose bones are still growing, ingestion of caffeine is especially detrimental because it can create bone and growth problems that a child wouldn't normally see until late adulthood (such as osteoporosis and arthritis). Also, the high sugar content in foods and drinks containing caffeine accelerates tooth decay. This, combined with the deterioration of the tooth enamel, leads to a number of physical problems that arise from poor dental hygiene such as poor eyesight, frequent headaches, sinus problems, immune system deficiencies, and blood diseases.
Studies have also shown that caffeine intake by pregnant women can cause severe developmental problems with the fetus that manifest in the child after birth via mental disorders (such as ADHD and retardation) and physical problems (deformities and abnormalities). Caffeine acts as a relaxant which causes decreased blood flow to the placenta, which leads to a limited oxygen supply to the fetus. A decreased supply of oxygen to the fetus has conclusively been linked to defective brain and organ development. Caffeine intake has also been linked to miscarriages.
There is no physical benefit to caffeine consumption, especially in children. If your child is lethargic and takes prodding to get started in the mornings before school, try natural methods of motivating them such as an earlier bed time, less snacking before bed, a better nutrition program, exercise, and a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables. Motivating them with a drug (which is what caffeine is) is no motivation at all, and will lead to more serious problems down the road with regard to mental and emotional development and physical well-being.