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Many parents are aware of the importance of “the first three years” when it comes to brain development. They bend over backwards, making certain their infants and toddlers get all the nutrition and mental simulation needed to develop their baby brains.

Not so many parents understand than a second period of tremendous brain development happens much later, during puberty and adolescence. Rather than supporting this development, parents may inadvertently derail this development by permitting kids to consume large amounts of caffeine.

Over the past 30 years, caffeine intake by children and young adults has increased more than 70%. Soft drinks and energy drinks often tout their pick-me-up properties – properties derived from caffeine. Kids who are frequently overscheduled may be directed to caffeine-laced drinks to help them get through a busy day and to stay awake through a mountain of homework. Mom and Dad may be the ones directing kids to use caffeine, even buying for them caffeine drinks they think the kids will enjoy.

There’s very likely a huge downside. A recent study by researchers at the University Children’s Hospital in Zurich and the Swiss National Science Foundation found that “teenage” rats who received daily doses of caffeine equivalent to 3 or 4 cups of soda had delayed brain development. The maturing process that typically occurs in adolescent brains – a pruning of unneeded connections and fine-tuning of needed ones – was diminished.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 100 mgs of caffeine for children and teens. But they note that a typical, 12-ounce service of cola contains 35 mgs or more, so that three sodas alone put a child over the limit. Many teens drink a couple sodas a day, and then an energy drink or other caffeine-laden beverage… or eat chocolate, another caffeine-containing substance.

Granted, your child is not a rat and the study was conducted with rats. There are ethical considerations that make a caffeine-study of teen brain development impossible. But the development of rat brains and human brains follow a similar path. And given the possible impact of caffeine and the lack of nutritional necessity of caffeine, it makes sense to pay attention. Even a rat-study has relevance when trying to develop your teen’s thinking ability!

So what do you do?

  1. Limit your child’s caffeine intake. Get it down to zero if you can. You may find that your child sleeps better and is less crabby – nice bonuses!
  2. Read labels. If you can’t avoid caffeine completely, at least reduce the caffeine content of what you keep in the fridge.
  3. Pay attention to the availability of caffeinated drinks in your child’s school and on the sidelines of her sport. If energy drinks are part of the mix, speak up.
  4. Notice when your child seems to “need” caffeine. Is he under a lot of stress, trying to do too much, leaving tasks until he’s already tired? Rearrange his schedule or eliminate some items if your kid needs caffeine to get through the day or if he needs caffeine to be awake enough to get started.
  5. Talk with your older child and teen about the downside of caffeine. Help your child learn to make good choices.

Especially when key brain development is underway, it’s important to regulate your child’s nutrition and that includes caffeine. More calmness, less frantic activity, better sleep, and smarter. Where’s the downside in that?


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.