"The results support the current recommendations to limit caffeine intake during pregnancy to less than 200 milligrams [mg] of caffeine per day, which is approximately two to three cups of black coffee", said lead researcher Eleni Papadopoulou. But children of women who consumed the most caffeine during pregnancy were 66 percent more likely to be slightly overweight, researchers found. At age 3 years and 5 years, any in utero exposure to caffeine was associated with higher risk of overweight.
"It is important that pregnant women are aware that caffeine does not come from coffee only, but that caffeinated soda drinks (e.g. cola-drinks and energy-drinks) can contribute with considerable amounts of caffeine", Papadopoulou said. These include the placenta - meaning it takes longer to get rid of during pregnancy. However, researchers from this study note that a "complete avoidance" of caffeine may be advisable based on their findings.
Filter coffee contains more caffeine (140mg a cup).
Existing guidelines in Australia and New Zealand recommend limiting caffeine intake while pregnant, but the Norwegian researchers are telling mothers to go cold turkey.
While they can't prove cause and effect, the researchers suggest pregnant women should cut out caffeine altogether.
At 22 weeks of pregnancy, the mothers-to-be were asked to quantify their food and drink intake from among 255 items, including caffeine, using a specially adapted Food Frequency Questionnaire.
On average, children exposed to very high levels of caffeine weighed 480 grams more than children who had been exposed to low levels, according to the study.
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Sources of caffeine included coffee, black tea, caffeinated soft drinks, chocolate, chocolate milk, sandwich spreads; and desserts, cakes, and candies.
The research provides no evidence of a causal link between prenatal exposure to caffeine and early childhood obesity, argues Dr Clovis Palmer, Senior Monash University Fellow and head of the Immunometabolism and Inflammation Laboratory at the Burnet Institute.
The study found the women who consumed a higher level of caffeine were more likely to be over 30, already have one child, consume more daily calories and smoke during pregnancy.
However they do not warrant the need for women to abstain from caffeine at this stage, said Dr Pecoraro.
"Putting together the previous findings of the MoBa study, we have shown that children prenatally exposed to high caffeine levels are smaller at birth, grow faster in infancy and retain a higher weight throughout childhood without significant height differences, thus becoming overweight", the researchers wrote.
Just under half of the mums-to-be (46%) were classified as low caffeine intake; 44 percent as average intake; 7 percent as high; and 3 percent as very high. But the risk only appeared to persist until youngsters were eight if their mother had "very high" consumption in pregnancy.
"It's likely that caffeine is not good for you, especially in high doses", he said.