Melatonin use in children

For overtired parents who can’t seem to get their kids sleeping well consistently, the promise of a magic pill can be pretty enticing.

It seems that lately more and more doctors and parents are turning to melatonin as a band-aid for sleep issues with their children. I hear from moms all the time that they are giving their babies melatonin to help them fall asleep at night, and I have concerns about this.

Because there is not a general consensus about the safety of melatonin use in children among the medical community, I feel it is important that this issue be raised.

Here’s the deal: Melatonin is NOT a long-term solution to poor sleep habits. Healthy sleep habits need to be learned at a young age in order to set kids up for a lifetime of good sleep.

And while some studies have shown that melatonin can be helpful with autistic children or children with ADHD, most babies and children do not need melatonin; they need to be taught good, independent sleep skills.

Here’s why:  Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by your brain and is present in every person’s body. According to the National Sleep Foundation, no other hormone is available in the United States without a prescription. Because melatonin is contained naturally in some foods, the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 allows it to be sold as a dietary supplement. These do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or controlled in the same way as drugs.

A Hartford Hospital toxicologist says, “it’s (melatonin) possibly thought to affect growth, and to affect sexual development and puberty.” Other side effects can include headaches, drowsiness and stomach ache.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Melatonin should not be used in most children. It is possibly unsafe. Because of its effects on other hormones, melatonin might interfere with development.”

Dr. Judith Owens, director of the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, says “there are ongoing concerns based on studies in animals showing melatonin can affect puberty-related hormones. While there is very little evidence to suggest this is true in humans, the reality is no long-term clinical trials (which would settle the question) have yet been conducted.”

She went on to say that melatonin use should be avoided in children under the age of 3 and that it “should never substitute for healthy sleep practices: a regular, age-appropriate and consistent bedtime and bedtime routine, no caffeine, and no electronics/screens before bedtime.”

Read more about the questions associated with melatonin use in children in this 2015 article from US News & World Report, “More Parents Are Giving Kids Melatonin to Sleep. Is It Safe?” and in this 2015 Huffington Post blog from Dr. Wendy Swanson, "Using Melatonin to Help Children Fall Asleep". These articles are just a couple of the many examples of what you would find online. Feel free to do your own research as there is quite of bit of information out there to consider.

If this information concerns you as it did me, there are many ways that you can help your little love sleep well through the night without supplements. As a mom, I just don’t think it’s worth the risk when other options are available.