What You Need To Know About Giving Your Kids Melatonin For Sleep Issues

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
Is Melatonin Safe For Your Children?
Annie Spratt/Unsplash

I cannot recall a time when I didn’t struggle with sleep. Falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early … it’s all on the table. My insomnia has been a pretty defining part of my life, and so when we first had children 13 years ago, I worried that I’d passed this irritating part of me, onto them.

Unsurprisingly, my first child was a pretty bad sleeper. Like, really bad. Getting him to sleep was practically a full time job, and keeping him asleep was just as rough. And after all that work, he was up long before the sun. After years of this, my wife and I tried melatonin at the recommendation of our pediatrician, and it really seemed to help him (and us). Turns out, we weren’t the only parents being recommended this option.

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An online survey of 933 parents with children under 18 conducted by YouGov for The New York Times found that about a third had kids who were struggling with sleep issues in the past year. But among those parents of “struggling to sleep” kids, almost half had given melatonin to their children. Dr. Judith Owens, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, had this to say in response to the survey findings: “It’s so widely used, it is astonishing to me. Pediatricians have kind of glommed on to this as being the answer to children’s sleep problems.”

As a father who gave his child melatonin to get to sleep, my biggest question was, is it safe for me to do so? Like I said above, our trusted pediatrician recommended it, but after doing additional research into the subject, it sounds like the use of melatonin for children is not 100% cut and dry. Many doctors seem to think it’s harmless, but ultimately it’s kind of a grey area, and that means we have to make a decision with our kids’ doctors as to what we think the best approach is.

Darby S/Reshot

Melatonin is actually present in everyone’s bodies. It’s a hormone produced by the pineal gland, and helps regulate your sleep cycle by essentially telling your body when to go to sleep and when to awaken. It’s something that we naturally manufacture, and synthetic melatonin just mimics its effects.

Here’s the issue: Melatonin isn’t classified as a drug; it’s classified as a supplement. This means that manufacturers do not have to submit evidence that their products work — nor prove that their listed ingredients are accurate or pure — in the same way that drugs seeking approval from the FDA do. Which is a little unnerving, especially for something you’re going to give your child. Manufacturers also aren’t held to any certain standard as to what amount of melatonin their supplement actually contains. A 2017 study compared 31 different brands of melatonin supplement and found a huge variability in the amount of melatonin in each, both less and greater than the amount advertised. This is concerning.

You also do not have to get a prescription to acquire melatonin, and that really is what gives some doctors pause, because melatonin isn’t a cure-all. For example, according to a report in the Times on the findings of their survey, melatonin is not appropriate for restless leg syndrome, which can be a reason for sleep disruption. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institutes of Health say that children should not take melatonin long-term, but neither organization defines what “long-term” means.

Just like adults, some children are born with different nighttime clocks, and thus, don’t naturally fall asleep when parents might like. My son, the difficult sleeper, is 13 now. He doesn’t take melatonin anymore, but I will say that I just don’t think he requires as much sleep as anyone else in our house. He tends to stay up late. And when I get up in the morning for work around 6AM, he’s already up. He’s been this way for a long time now. His grades are good, and he doesn’t fall asleep during the day much, so I think this is simply how he was created. The only difference now is that he’s old enough to manage himself. This is very different from when he was a toddler who refused to sleep, and it felt like he was a walking, babbling time bomb in my house.

Darby S/Reshot

But now, all those years later, I am left with this question: did he really need melatonin, or was it that I needed him to take melatonin? I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that question, but considering I did exactly what my pediatrician recommended — from the dose, to the brand, to the duration of use — I don’t feel bad about it at all.

And I don’t think you should either. As long as you have consulted with your child’s doctor, of course.

Of course, this leads me back to the title of the article: Is it safe for your children to take melatonin?

And from what I can tell, the answer is complicated for a few reasons, and most of that has to do with the lack of regulations around melatonin, combined with how readily available it is in not only pill, but also “candy” (gummy, fruity syrups, etc) form. The biggest recommendation I can give after looking into the subject is to talk to your pediatrician. Don’t hide the fact that you are giving it to your child. This is not a dirty secret, and it is something that should be discussed. They will help you assess the concerns you have with your child’s sleep to make sure melatonin is a logical choice. The will also be able to help you find a dose that is right for your child, while also leading you to brands that are known for safety and purity. And if melatonin isn’t right for your child for any reason, chances are your doctor can help you find out what is.

The goal here is to not use this supplement in the shadows. Be open and honest about it, so it can be used responsibly.

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