child drinking coffee

Caffeine and Kids

How much caffeine is safe for kids? There’s not enough research to determine a specific amount, but many doctors you ask will say the same thing: None.  

That means it’s not okay for kids to consume soda, coffee, black and green tea, energy drinks, chocolate, foods with chocolate and/or coffee, and anything else that contains the world’s most consumed psychostimulant. Yes, sugar is a large part of why these beverages are bad for health, but caffeine should not be overlooked. “Caffeine-containing foods and beverages can have effects on the body and mind that interfere with every aspect of what children need to thrive,” says Columbia pediatrician David Buchholz, MD.  

The most common complaints Buchholz and his team hear from patients: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up in the morning. Yet few make the connection to caffeine consumption, even as more children add caffeine to their diets. Often, says Buchholz, the goal is improved concentration in athletes and students. Unfortunately, sleep disturbances can decrease concentration. 

Buchholz recommends parents model good behavior by choosing non-caffeinated foods and drinks when having meals with their kids, and schools should provide healthy choices, free of caffeine. 

How much caffeine can kids have? 

“There is no known safe amount of caffeine for anyone age 11 and younger,” says Buchholz. According to the FDA, for healthy adults, 400 mg a day is an amount not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects, though many people will be sensitive to lower amounts. Until a safe amount is determined, if it’s impossible to avoid, people age 12 to 17 should have less than 100 mg of caffeine per day.  

If children or adolescents do consume caffeine, watch for side effects and limit them to amounts that don’t appear to cause side effects. If they experience side effects, wean the amount of caffeine they consume daily by about 25% every week over four weeks until they no long have side effects or are completely off caffeine. 

How much is 100 mg of caffeine?  

Read labels: Every beverage varies. Here are estimates, for every 8 ounces:  

  • Coffee: about 100 mg caffeine  
  • Black tea: about 50 mg caffeine 
  • Soda: about 25 mg caffeine 
  • Energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster: 40 to 250 mg caffeine and high sugar 

Why caffeine is bad for kids 

Children, particularly while still growing, thrive on consistency with waking, napping (if younger), and a bedtime routine. They also require regularly scheduled meals of healthy food, opportunities to play and interact with other children and adults, and opportunities to develop and learn and to test the acquisition of new skills.   

Consuming caffeine not only interferes with regular development (acquisition of skills, emotional and social health, and more), it also instigates side effects that may have long-term health consequences if a child also has underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, or anxiety disorders. 

Bottom line: Caffeine has no nutritional value but plenty of side effects that negatively impact health. 

Effects of caffeine on kids  

“Kids are smaller than adults and it takes much less caffeine to cause adverse effects on their bodies,” says Buchholz. “Short-term effects can ruin a day but over time they can cause disruption in important relationships and in, extreme examples, school failure.” 

Short-term side effects of caffeine 

  • Anxiety   
  • Dehydration   
  • Diarrhea  
  • Heart palpitations   
  • High blood pressure   
  • Increased heart rate   
  • Insomnia   
  • Jitters   
  • Nausea   
  • Restlessness   

Long-term side effects of caffeine 

Long-term use of caffeine can lead to caffeine addiction and withdrawal when the child stops or reduces caffeine consumption. Headaches and agitation are common withdrawal symptoms. 

Little boy drinking from soft drink can. Beach background full of beach umbrella and furniture

Caffeine + sugar + kids 

What’s worse than caffeine for kids? Caffeine plus sugar. 

Caffeinated drinks that contain sugar, cream, and chocolate can limit a child’s appetite for healthy foods and beverages, cause dental cavities, increase obesity, and have all the side effects associated with caffeine.   


Energy drinks and kids 

The American Academy of Pediatrics makes it clear: Stimulant-containing energy drinks have no place in the diets of children and adolescents. No one of any age, especially zero to 17, should have energy drinks.  

“In recent years, adolescents have shifted from drinking caffeine-containing sodas to coffee and energy drinks,” says Buchholz. “But energy drinks are risky despite their common use among teens.” 

Energy drinks have more of everything bad. Standard energy drinks are 16 ounces, doubling the caffeine per serving noted on the label (generally 85 mg per 8 ounces), greatly exceeding the maximum amount of caffeine per day for teens, increasing the risk of adverse effects, and they also tend to have large amounts of sugar, increasing the chances of obesity. 


David Buchholz, MD, is a general pediatrician, the senior founding medical director of Columbia Primary Care, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.