Children Using Melatonin: Is it Safe?
If you were to ask parents what they miss most about their pre-parenting days, the hands-down answer would be sleep. Parents miss being able to sleep in. They miss uninterrupted sleep. They miss sleeping without having to keep one ear or eye open. They miss solely relying on an alarm instead of children’s cries to get them out of bed.
But to what extent are parents willing to go to get the kind of sleep they had before becoming parents or to assure that their children get the kind of sleep their little bodies need?
A few years ago, it was somewhat of a “fad” to give children a dose of Benadryl in order to get them to sleep.
Benadryl is a drug. While it has been proven to be a safe drug, the possibility exists for regular and continued use as a sleep aid to result in dependence. This means the child–or adult–has difficulty falling asleep without the medication in his or her system. While the instances of dependence are rare, a child’s well being is simply not worth the risk.
Thankfully, parents have moved past this, but just like any other “fad,” it’s out with the old and in with the new. And the “new” in this case is melatonin, a natural supplement.
On the other hand, some parents are using melatonin not for their own sleep benefit, but for those of their children. Some children may have difficulty producing melatonin or may have another exception that is keeping them from sleeping. Sleep habits can determine many aspects of a child’s health and behavior. Parents understand that a child’s amount of sleep is critical to their well-being, and that melatonin may help them get more rest.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a naturally produced hormone made in our pineal gland. It is a result of tryptophan (the ingredient in turkey that makes us sleepy). The amount of melatonin our bodies produce is dependent on the amount of light–natural and synthetic–we are exposed to.
Melatonin’s purpose is to regulate the body’s clock. Melatonin tells the body when it is time to sleep and when it is time to wake up. It also plays a significant role in the reproductive system—specifically the biological clock for puberty, menstruation, and menopause.
What the experts say
Because melatonin is a natural substance versus a drug, parents feel comfortable in giving their children a dose of melatonin in order to help them fall asleep. Their philosophy—a good night’s sleep makes children healthier, happier, and easier to get along with. In other words, it’s a win-win for parents and children.
But is it? Is using melatonin as a sleep aid really a good idea? Pediatric sleep consultant, Katie Dallimore, shares, “While melatonin does help the onset of sleep, it does not have a significant impact on preventing users from waking up in the night. In other words, giving your child melatonin will make them fall asleep, but it won’t keep them from waking up in the night.”
Dallimore says that she is often asked if melatonin is safe to use. “Evidence is lacking that melatonin is harmful to children in the short run, however, long term effects are unknown. It is important to mention that melatonin is regulated by the FDA as a food supplement and not a medication, thus it is not terribly regulated in terms of labeling, dosage, preparation, concentration, contraindications, etc. If prescribed melatonin by a pediatrician, I would recommend taking it in conjunction with modifying sleep hygiene so that it doesn’t become something that the child relies on to fall asleep.”
Dr. Sandy Reed with Our Lady of Lake Pediatric Medical Center shares, “I only recommend it as the second line of defense. The first line of defense would be no screen time, a quiet room, and not eating certain foods at least an hour before bedtime. If that doesn’t work, then I would recommend using melatonin temporarily to help get their sleep back on track. I would start with 1 mg and then increase as needed.”
Dr. Charlotte Hollman, a Pediatric Neurologist at Baton Rouge Clinic, agrees that a low dosage is best for children, but only under the guidance of a doctor. “Melatonin works fairly well and people shouldn’t be afraid of it,” she shares.
Melatonin is especially effective for children who have sleep problems, particularly for those with “developmental delays such as autism,” according to Dr. Steven Felix from Our Lady of the Lake Pediatric Development and Therapy Center. He also advises that before using melatonin, good sleep hygiene must be practiced. Children should be prepared for sleep. These good sleep habits can be developed in several ways. Dallimore recommends to her clients as well as with her own children that by providing a soothing environment, being consistent in scheduled naps and bedtimes, and using a child’s natural circadian rhythm, the children will develop good natural sleep habits on their own that will be satisfactory to both the child and the parent.
Some of you may be asking what a circadian rhythm is and how to find out how to use it to get you child to sleep through the night.
The term circadian rhythm is used to describe the body’s natural 24-hour clock. It is controlled by a specific portion of the brain that sends signals to the pineal gland, which produces the body’s own source of melatonin. The circadian rhythm is affected by both internal and external stimuli—the most common stimuli being light. The other most common stimuli include colors, blood pressure, body temperature, and eating patterns.
By monitoring and manipulating a child’s exposure to light, bright colors, and certain foods, along with warmth and a calm atmosphere, a child’s body will produce enough melatonin on its own to induce sleepiness and a good night’s sleep without the help of additional melatonin. But in order for that to happen, parents need to recognize and work with their child’s rhythm.
Working with a child’s circadian rhythm requires parents to:
- Recognize their child’s ‘sleepy signals’ and act upon them. Don’t deny, delay, or rush naptime. Be consistent in your child’s bedtime rituals and times.
- Refusing all screen time beginning early in the evening, as the lighting used in screens of all types act to reduce melatonin production.
- Refrain from the use of nightlights. Dallimore shares that if your child insists on a nightlight, make sure it is on the red spectrum. Blue light stimulates, which is what you are trying to avoid.
- Prepare your child for bedtime with a warm bath, soft lighting, and quiet time (no rough play, bright colors, high-energy activities, etc.)
- Have an evening diet and bedtime snack that is melatonin-friendly. Foods that encourage melatonin production include oatmeal, bananas, rice, pineapple, oranges, apples, cheese and whole-wheat crackers, and peanut butter.
Things to keep in mind
No matter what your opinion of using melatonin as a sleep aid for your child is, it is important to remember what the experts have to say:
- The regulation of the production of melatonin supplements is not strictly monitored because melatonin is a supplement—not a drug.
- There is not enough research on the long-term effects of using melatonin as a sleep aid to provide parents and the medical community with the information it needs to make educated and conclusive choices.
- The body is designed to sleep. By using the body’s natural clock and ability in conjunction with the proper stimuli, routine, and discipline, your child will be able to develop good sleep habits naturally.
- The use of melatonin to induce sleep is effective, but is not effective in maintaining a state of uninterrupted sleep. Waking up periodically still happens.
- Melatonin as a sleep aid brings a sense of calm and lessens the anxiety level of children with emotional and behavioral issues.
At the end of the day, the choice to give children a sleep aid is up to you, the parent. But when making that choice, remember this: your child’s lack of sleep may be attributed to their lifestyle, schedule, diet, and habits. By changing and adjusting these things, their body’s natural production of melatonin may be all they need to get a good night’s sleep. ■