When I recently shared this article on my Mama Doc Facebook about a “magic” children’s bedtime story promising to make the going-to-sleep process easier, many parents inquired about melatonin.
No question that supplemental melatonin has a role in children’s sleep dysfunction but also no question that parents are turning to melatonin out of a need for convenience. I’ve had COUNTLESS curbside consults from parents asking me if melatonin is safe to use in the short-term but also for years on end. The short answer is we don’t entirely know because studies just haven’t been done. Often when I get the story of how families are using melatonin, I end up advising changes in the sleep schedule more than a need for meds. What we do know: melatonin can help children fall asleep with sleep dysfunction, sleep dysfunction and inadequate sleep have serious health consequences, and although melatonin only helps with sleep initiation (falling asleep) it can be hugely beneficial for children who lie awake at night for hours at bedtime. The other thing we know: melatonin is not regulated like medicines (it’s overseen as a food supplement) that has been studied in very few pediatric populations so it’s difficult to generalize safety for children everywhere. Lots of definitions, dosing info, and pediatric sleep expertise below.
If your child can fall asleep in about 30 minutes after the lights are out (especially when you have made sure no screen time for 1-2 hours prior, no caffeine in afternoon) then melatonin is unnecessary.
If it were my child I’d use melatonin if sleep dysfunction at bedtime was getting in the way of necessary sleep, but I’d also do everything I could to get them off of it as soon as I could. Many children respond to the hypnotic effect of higher doses of melatonin, but many children are also given it for family convenience, too. In my experience, sometimes families use it to treat anxiety (those kids whose mind spins and spins and spins and worries) at bedtime. Although sometimes melatonin helps kids fall asleep, it’s just a band-aid.
Children are sleeping less than ever before and there are mounting impediments to a good night’s sleep (screens, early school start times, stimulants in the food source, busy school days and activities keeping kids up late). However inconvenient, I think sleep hygiene (routine bed time, no screens before bed, bed used only for sleeping) and consistency with what we do as parents may be the only magic wand to wave for sleep throughout childhood. Awakenings typically rise from all sorts of developmental milestones and changes as children grow. Overnight awakenings will always be normal although how our children get back to sleep on their own changes our night of sleep dramatically. When it comes to challenges falling asleep, sometimes melatonin can really help, especially in children with underlying autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorders, or children with shifted sleep schedules.
Only a few long-term studies have looked at prolonged use and associated effects, but most sleep specialists consider melatonin safe, particularly for occasional short-term use. The bigger question is why parents feel the need to give their child melatonin. –Dr. Maida Chen