How Caffeine Reduces Childhood Sleep Quality

Patient Expert

We already know that caffeine is linked to insomnia symptoms — and it seems that our addiction to caffeine is now beginning to affect the sleep of our children, too.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2017 investigated caffeine consumption among 309 Australian children between ages of eight and 12. Parents and children were asked to complete questionnaires on caffeine intake, behavior, and sleep.

Caffeine consumption was measured using the Caffeine Food Frequency Questionnaire (C-FFQ). This questionnaire is designed to assess the average daily caffeine consumption over the previous week by collecting data on the different drinks (such as energy drinks, soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate milk) and foods (such as chocolate) consumed. Caffeine content was calculated using nutrient tables and information from food manufacturer websites.

Behavior was measured using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) which asks parents/guardians about their child’s behavior over the past six months. The CBCL helps assess internalizing behaviors (a measure of emotional problems such as anxiety and depression) and externalizing behaviors (a measure of behavioral problems such as rule breaking and aggression).

Sleep was measured using the Pediatric Sleep Problem Survey Instrument (PSPI). In this questionnaire, parents are asked to respond based on their child’s sleep behaviors over the past "typical" seven-day week. The PSPI collects data on sleep routine, bedtime anxiety, morning tiredness, waking during the night, snoring during the night, and restless sleep.

Childhood caffeine consumption

Researchers found that 87 percent of children had consumed caffeine during the previous week. Of those who had consumed caffeine, the largest contributors to caffeine consumption were:

  • Coffee and tea (41 percent of total caffeine intake)
  • Soft Drinks (40 percent of total caffeine intake)
  • Energy drinks (13 percent of total caffeine intake)
  • Food and drinks that contained chocolate (6 percent of total caffeine intake)

The most popular sources of caffeine were:

  • Food and drinks that contained chocolate (consumed by 79 percent of children)
  • Sodas (consumed by 37.8 percent of children)
  • Coffee and tea (consumed by 27.4 percent of children)
  • Energy drinks (consumed by 2.5 percent of children)

Childhood caffeine consumption and sleep

The study found that children who slept between nine and 11 hours consumed significantly less caffeine compared to children who slept seven to eight hours per night. No differences were found in caffeine consumption when it came to how long it took children to fall asleep.

Increased caffeine consumption was also significantly associated with:

  • Poor sleep routine
  • Morning tiredness
  • Restless sleep
  • Worse internalizing daytime behaviors

Researchers stated that their findings suggested that poor sleep routine and restless sleep may account for higher levels of morning tiredness and worse internalizing behaviors.

In other words, caffeine consumption may disrupt sleep — and the subsequent sleep disruption can lead to higher levels of morning tiredness and more internalizing behaviors such as social withdrawal, demand for attention, and feelings of inferiority.

No relationship was found between caffeine consumption and externalizing problems such as aggression.

Is caffeine really the problem?

As pointed out by the authors of the study, caffeine may not be the only factor influencing poor sleep outcomes in children — other ingredients may play a role, too.

Researchers suggested that added sugar may be harming the sleep of children, too. They highlighted studies that found higher intakes of added sugar and higher consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks were associated with shorter sleep durations in children. Ingredients such as guarana — popular in many energy drinks — also contain large amounts of caffeine.

Finally, the authors of the study suggested the food additives that are common in foods and beverages containing caffeine may increase sleep disturbances and increase the amount of time it takes children to fall asleep. In fact, researchers pointed to one study that found removing food additives from the diet of hyperactive children improved the quality of their sleep.

What should parents do?

Since this study demonstrated that caffeine intake in children was associated with reduced sleep quality and symptoms of internalizing behavior, it is important for us, as parents, to be aware of how much caffeine our children are consuming.

Importantly, caffeine may not be coming primarily from energy drinks (in this study energy drinks only accounted for 13 percent of caffeine consumption) — it is also present in many sodas and foods such as chocolate. Make sure you are aware of this when purchasing food and drinks for your children.

It’s also important to note that the effects of caffeine can last for up to 10 hours — so if your child is consuming caffeine, it may be worth trying to limit this consumption to mornings rather than afternoons and evenings to minimize any potential sleep disturbances.

See more helpful articles:

Does Your Diet Really Affect Your Sleep?

Sugar-free Drinks: Diet Aid or Diet Downfall?

Is Your Coffee and Tea Habit Adding Sneaky Calories?