Nearly 70% of kids experience one or more sleep problems several nights a week, while 3 million are being prescribed medications aimed at curbing attention deficit issues. New research suggests that once again, the devil may be in the diet. Children’s caffeine intake is far higher than commonly assumed, with potentially far-reaching health implications.

study published in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at survey data on diet and sleep duration for 201 children, ages 5 to 12 years. Overall, three-fourths of children imbibed some amount of caffeine. Average intake among 8 to 12 year olds was 102 mg/day (equivalent to one cup of coffee), which is 28% higher than recommended guidelines. Even 5 to 7 year olds consumed, on average, 52 mg of caffeine a day — 16% above the limit recommended for that age group. Caffeine intake linked directly to less sleep, resulting in 9% less shut-eye for the older caffeine-guzzling kids.

Previous research has linked caffeinated sodas with rising blood pressure rates among children, raising concerns about hypertension-related health problems later in life. In addition to caffeine, such sodas contain many other things kids don’t need, namely tooth-rotting sugar and obesity-encouraging empty calories. Other, less obvious, caffeine sources offer little better, or worse, be it chocolate-y junk foods, energy shots or novelty teas. Better beverage options include 100% fruit juice and whole fruit, which is linked to lower body mass indices and higher nutrient intakes among children under age 12, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Published November 1, 2011