Is Melatonin Safe to Give to Kids to Help Them Sleep?
Increasingly, parents are giving this sleep aid to their kids — but is it a good idea?
An occasional dose of melatonin is likely safe, but there is little data on long-term effects.
Plenty of tired parents whose children just won’t go to sleep have dreamed of a secret potion. Some of them believe it to be melatonin, a natural hormone we all produce to signal sleep that is also sold in synthetic form as an over-the-counter pill.
Sales of melatonin have increased over 500 percent since 2003, according to U.S. News & World Report, and pediatric sleep experts say plenty of parents have given it to their children. But many caution against using melatonin or any over-the-counter sleep supplements for children who just fight bedtime, especially without consulting a doctor.
“It seems like melatonin becomes that desired magic bullet and it’s not always so,” said Dr. Maida Chen, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “In my mind all sleep medications are used as a band-aid, a cover up, and that concerns me,” she says, explaining that children may have underlying medical or psychological problems that sleep aids hide.
She posits that most just need some behavioral modifications, such as shutting down screens at night, establishing a consistent bedtime routine, limiting sugar and caffeine, and adjusting nap and bedtimes according to age.
There is no FDA-approved sleep aid for children, and the ingredients and dosage of supplements can vary. An occasional dose of melatonin is likely safe, Chen said, but there is little data on long-term effects and growing concern that melatonin may affect puberty hormones.
“Hormones have a full-body effect, and we just don’t know about the consequences,” says Dr. Jamey Wallace, chief medical officer at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle. “I wouldn’t prescribe it for my kids, I wouldn’t prescribe it for patients.”
Experts made an exception for children whose sleep is disrupted by conditions such as autism, ADHD/ADD, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
“Kids who are neurologically programmed differently may truly need healing to establish regular sleep,” Chen said.
Monika Scoville, a Burien mom of three boys, found melatonin effective in reducing anxiety in her 11-year-old son Samuel, who has ADD.
“When he goes to bed, he gets anxious and his brain is just spinning,” she said.
Her naturopath suggested a small dose of melatonin spray, which calms him down when he’s particularly troubled or has a big day ahead of him.
Another mother, who asked for her name not to be used, gives melatonin to her 12-year-old daughter who has autism. Before, her daughter laid awake for hours complaining that she “could not turn her brain off.” Now, she falls asleep within 20 minutes.
Parents should not give Benadryl or other medicines to induce sleep, except in rare instances, such as a red-eye flight, Chen said, but only after talking to a pediatrician and trying it at home. Some children will actually become more hyper instead of sleepy.
There is some hope for parents who want extra help calming their kids before bed in the form of homeopathic remedies, teas, and essential oils. Wallace said herbs such as chamomile, passion flower, valerian, and skullcap can help soothe restless children. Products with these ingredients are available over the counter, but even these should not be used without talking to a health care provider, he said. Lavender and hops oils lotions also can help kids relax.
No matter what, health care providers urge parents to seek help from their doctor or naturopath to find out what’s going on before serious sleep problems develop, and brainstorm solutions together as a team.
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