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Does caffeine intake during pregnancy affect child's behavior?

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
coffee, caffeine, tea, pregnancy, behavioral problems, cola beverages

Many women who become aware of their pregnancy become extremely cautious in regard to the avoidance of any substance that might harm their developing fetus. Smoking and excessive alcohol intake are definitely harmful to the fetus; however, studies on the harmful effects of many other substances are inconclusive. One substance that has come under scrutiny is caffeine, commonly consumed in coffee and tea.

Researchers in the Netherlands and Belgium set out to investigate whether caffeine consumption during pregnancy increased the risk of behavioral problems in the offspring. They published their findings online on July 9 in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers noted that human studies that have investigated the association between caffeine intake during pregnancy and offspring’s behavioral outcomes are scant and inconclusive. Therefore, they prospectively investigated the association between maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy and children’s problem behavior at age 5 to 6 years. They evaluated factors such as fetal growth restriction, gestational age, at birth, as well as any differences by gender.

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The study group was comprised of 8,202 pregnant women in a community-based multiethnic birth cohort (women of different ethnicities residing in the same community). Dietary caffeine intake (coffee, caffeinated tea, and cola) was measured around the 16th week of gestation. At age 5, children’s overall problem behavior, emotional problems, conduct problems, hyperactivity/inattention problems, peer relationship problems, and pro-social behavior were rated by both mother and teacher (3,439 children) with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Analyses were adjusted for the following factors: maternal age; ethnicity; cohabitant status (i.e., residing with a spouse); education; smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy; child’s gender; family size; and prenatal maternal anxiety.

The authors found that caffeine intake was not associated with a higher risk for behavior problems or with suboptimal pro-social behavior. They found no evidence that caffeine consumption affected fetal growth restriction or gestational age at birth. In addition, no differences by the child’s gender were found.

Take home message:
This study should offer reassurance for women who enjoy a cup or two of coffee in the morning or enjoy the typical English pick-me-up in the form of afternoon tea. Also, adding sugar or cream to the beverage may give it a preferred flavor; however, they are not necessarily healthy. In general, other caffeinated beverages such as colas should be avoided. Those that contain sugar result in a harmful glucose spike in the bloodstream. Phosphates in sugar free beverages can deplete the body of potassium. The key for most things in life is moderation. I do not think the author’s intent was to give the green light to unlimited caffeine consumption.

Reference: Pediatrics

See also:
Coffee reported to ward off dementia
Reduce uterine cancer risk - drink coffee