Coffee, Tea or Milk? Answer to What Parents Give Their Toddlers May Surprise You

Not only are some adults encouraging our smallest children to dress like adults (Toddlers in Tiaras) but a new study shows that a growing number of toddlers are now drinking more like adults, as well.

The Boston-based study, reported in March and led by Boston Medical Center (BMC) researchers, showed that about 1 in 7 two-year-olds drink as much as four ounces of coffee per day. The researchers also found that significant factors contributing to these numbers include maternal ethnicity as well as infant gender.

“Our results show that many infants and toddlers in Boston — and perhaps in the U.S. — are being given coffee, and that this could be associated with cultural practices,” said the study’s principal investigator Anne Merewood, director of the Breastfeeding Center at BMC.

“There has been limited-to-no studies giving us good information to guide the safe use of caffeine, and the effect of caffeine upon the mental health of a child in this age range can have pervasive delays in cognitive and social development.” – Dr. Charles Sophy

Caffeine from coffee, energy drinks and ice-blended beverages may be harmful to young children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, caffeine has been linked to harmful effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems. In addition, between the years 2006 and 2008, 1,200 cases of caffeine toxicity among kids younger than 6 years old were reported to poison control centers.

The Boston researchers looked at 315 mother-infant pairs to determine what infants and toddlers were consuming, and how much. They looked at breast milk, formula, water and juice, and were surprised to find that many mothers also reported they had given their baby coffee to drink.

Noteworthy findings from the study:

  • Infants and toddlers of Latino mothers are more likely to drink coffee than those of non-Latino mothers.
  • Female infants and toddlers were more likely than males to drink coffee.
  • At one year, the rate of coffee consumption was 2.5 percent of children.
  • At two years, that number had risen to 15 percent, or 1 in 7.

Is the increase unique to Boston? Not according to L.A.-based psychiatrist and author Dr. Charles Sophy.

“It is clearly on the rise,” Sophy said. “Over the past 12-to-24 months I have noticed it in both my private practice as well as in the child welfare system.”

Dr. Larry Yin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, agreed: “Caffeinated beverage intake by young children is on the rise in the U.S.”

Why is this happening? The answers vary, but it is clear that some parents need to be educated on the impact of caffeinated beverages on young children.

“The majority of parents who report the use of caffeine in their children tend to be drinking it themselves and add it to their child’s bottle or meal, unable to make what they should be eating often out of sheer exhaustion or lack of resources to get more formula,” said Sophy, who also serves as the medical director for Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Yin noted that “there are greater choices and availability today on how caffeine is delivered: soft drinks, energy drinks, Frappuccino’s, gum, water, candy, etc.”

Another possible reason for giving caffeine to young children, Sophy reported, is that some parents are using caffeine to “diagnose” if their child has ADD/ADHD by trying to see if their child will respond to caffeine in a manner similar to a child with ADD/ADHD. He cautioned that “having a non-mental-health professional attempting to diagnosis a mental health condition, as we all know, is not safe or appropriate.”

Previous studies suggest that coffee and caffeine consumption among children and adolescents is associated with depression, type 1 diabetes, sleep disturbances, substance abuse and obesity. And an earlier study showed that toddlers who drank coffee or tea between meals or at bedtime had triple the odds of being obese in kindergarten.

First 5 LA has demonstrated a commitment to educating parents about providing healthy food and beverage choices for their children through its funding of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Choose Health LA Restaurants campaign. Participating restaurants offer healthy kids’ meals that include fruits and vegetables, healthy beverages, non-fried foods and tap water free of charge.

Is the increased toddler caffeine consumption a legitimate health concern or merely a harmless change in how Americans raise their kids?

“For young children (0- to 5-year-olds), consistent caffeine intake may affect overall sleep and sleep quality,” Yin noted.

“The physical health risks posed to any child in this age range are significant,” cautioned Sophy. “There has been limited-to-no studies giving us good information to guide the safe use of caffeine, and the effect of caffeine upon the mental health of a child in this age range can have pervasive delays in cognitive and social development.”

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