For exhausted parents who can’t seem to get their kids on a healthy sleep schedule, the promise of a magic pill can be pretty enticing. Many families that contact me for help are either giving their young children melatonin, or have tried it in the past. Even more concerning, many parents report that their pediatricians recommended giving their little ones melatonin to improve their child’s sleep. The first thing I tell these parents is to go off melatonin supplements (with their pediatrician’s approval) while we work together to change their child’s sleep habits first. Nine times out of ten, these children start sleeping through the night within a matter of weeks just by making some modifications to their routines and bedtime behaviors.
I have many concerns with giving melatonin to young children, the first of which is that melatonin is merely a Band-Aid for sleep issues. Teaching your child healthy sleep habits from an early age is the best way to set them up for a lifetime of quality sleep. While some studies have shown that melatonin can be helpful for autistic children or children with ADHD, most babies and children do not need melatonin; they need to be taught good, independent sleep skills.
Here is what many parents don’t realize when they resort to melatonin supplements: melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by your brain which helps regulate your body’s circadian rhythm. Levels of melatonin increase at night as your exposure to light decreases; while melatonin levels decrease in the morning hours to signal your body when it is time to wake up. Melatonin is the only hormone 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, rather than needing a prescription like other hormones. Dietary supplements do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not regulated like other drugs.
The most recent study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in February, 2017 found that melatonin content in over-the-counter supplements varied widely and did not fall within the acceptable 10% margin of the contents listed on the label. The content of melatonin in the studied products ranged anywhere from 83% less to 478% more than what the labels listed. (Read the full study here.) With this kind of variance, parents cannot be sure how much melatonin their child is actually receiving with each dose.
Another big concern I have with giving young children melatonin supplements is that the long-term effects of the synthetic hormone are relatively unstudied and unknown. Some research on animals has shown that melatonin supplements may affect the development of reproductive, immune, cardiovascular and metabolic systems. While much of this research is inconclusive, it raises enough red flags for me to want to stay away from it for children whose bodies are still developing. Other known side effects of melatonin include headaches, grogginess and nausea.
So, is there ever an appropriate time to use melatonin? As mentioned above, melatonin helps to regulate your body’s circadian rhythm. Taking melatonin supplements for a short period (less than 2 weeks) to help your body adjust to a new time zone or recover from jet lag can be helpful. In general, though, I recommend making some routine or dietary changes to encourage your body to produce melatonin more naturally.
Light exposure has a big impact on melatonin production, so I recommend limiting your child’s exposure to artificial light (especially blue shades of light ) an hour before bedtime. This includes limiting screen time (TV, computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.) a full hour prior to bedtime.
Since melatonin is naturally occurring in some foods, you can also serve some of these foods to your child at dinnertime to help maintain appropriate melatonin levels. Melatonin boosting foods include barley, rice, oats, pineapples, bananas, oranges, tart cherries, walnuts, grape skins, tomatoes and olive oil to name a few.
Average, healthy children should have no problem producing enough melatonin to keep their circadian rhythms on track. If your child is struggling to sleep through the night, then my recommendation is to take a serious look at your family’s routines and your child’s behavior around bedtime. The truth is, children need to be taught healthy sleep habits and with some tweaking to your child’s behavior and routines around sleep, you can likely achieve a good night of sleep without putting your child at risk.
If you are ready to start teaching your child healthy sleep habits, but aren’t quite sure where to start, please click the button below to book a FREE evaluation call to find out how Dream Factory Sleep Solutions can help your child start getting better sleep…without supplements!