Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks and energy drinks. Consuming caffeine in appropriate doses can make one feel more alert and focused, hence it is a popular choice amongst students and workers for improved concentration and performance.

Children are uniquely sensitive to the effects of caffeine, as their bodies and brains are still developing. Caffeine increases activity in the brain and nervous system and can increase blood pressure and heart rate. It can also interfere with nutrient absorption of essential minerals and vitamins such as calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and B-vitamins. All of these can adversely affect the growth potential and immune function of a child.

Hence, it is not recommended for children below 12 years of age to consume caffeine even in minimal amounts, as it can potentially impact their health, sleep and behaviour.

Can adolescents have caffeine?

For adolescents aged 12 to 18 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends caffeine intake of no more than 100mg daily – the equivalent of one cup of brewed coffee or two cups of black tea.

Adolescents are still developing, physically and mentally, and require more sleep than children or adults – between eight and ten hours every night – for optimal metabolic health. Good quality and sufficient sleep is an essential factor for optimum concentration and performance.

The temporary effects of caffeine can dull the adolescent’s awareness of their body’s natural cues of fatigue, causing insufficient quality sleep and rest required for their developmental needs. The resulting sleep deprivation may prompt a cycle of dependence on caffeine consumption to function effectively.

In addition, adolescents have yet to develop tolerance to the moderate cardiac effects of stimulants which may be relatively harmless to healthy adults. This can result in increased sensitivity to the side effects of caffeine, which include abnormal heart rhythm, difficulty concentrating, stomach upset and sleep disturbance; and withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, persistent headaches, sweating and irritability.

Some caffeinated beverages, such as energy drinks, can contain high amounts of caffeine per serving, in combination with substances such as taurine. Research studies have shown that taurine and caffeine, when ingested together, have an exacerbated cardiac effect that is even greater than caffeine on its own. Excessive intake of such beverages can put the adolescent at risk of dangerously abnormal heart rhythms and blood pressure and should be avoided.

Safe ways to improve concentration and performance

Good quality and sufficient sleep, along with a healthy balanced diet and adequate hydration, are safe and proven methods for optimum concentration and performance, as well as memory, learning, behaviour, emotional and weight regulation.

Sleep hygiene
  • Consistently maintain a regular bedtime with the recommended amount of sleep:
    • 7-13 years old – at least 9 hours a day
    • 14-17 years old – at least 8 hours a day
    • 18 years old – at least 7 hours a day
  • Cease consumption of the following two hours before bedtime:
    • Caffeinated beverage
    • Heavy meals
    • Stimulating exercise and video games
    • Screen time
  • Begin a calming ritual one hour before bedtime:
    • Calm-mind activities such as:
      • Reading
      • Listening to gentle music
      • Stretching
      • Drawing
      • Crafts or other hobbies
Healthy diet
  • Eating a combination of carbohydrates, fats and protein; carbohydrates provide quick energy release, while protein and fat increase fullness over a longer period of time for a stable mood.
  • Suggested snacks include: Low-fat greek yogurt with fresh fruits/granola/nuts or biscuits/bread with eggs, cheese, tuna, peanut butter.

Adequate hydration
  • Dehydration can cause feelings of lethargy and sluggishness; adolescents should aim for six to eight cups of water per day for adequate hydration.
  • Suggested beverages include: Fruit-infused water or teas such as fresh lemon slices or cucumber and mint leaves, lemongrass tea, or a cup of milk or soy milk.

​Anthea Zee, Dietitian, Nutrition and Dietetics Department, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital

Ms Anthea Zee provides nutrition and dietetics management for babies and children with faltering growth and feeding difficulties, as well as weight management for women and children. She also provides medical nutrition therapy to patients with chronic disease conditions such as diabetes mellitus, gestational diabetes, and malnutrition.