Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Sometimes, the body does not produce enough of this hormone, due to an underlying condition, or for no identifiable reason. Without enough, poor sleep or sleep disruptions can occur. While poor sleep is troublesome at any age, it is particularly worrisome in children who require it for healthy growth and development. Children who experience sleep problems could benefit from getting more melatonin, but many parents worry about whether or not it’s safe.
Children need adequate sleep to support both physical and mental development. During sleep, the body creates and releases hormones that encourage this development. Sleep needs vary between infants and teens, but if these needs are not met, young people may exhibit problems with attention, memory, or behavior. When children have chronic issues that affect their sleep, they are at risk for other health conditions like obesity, depression, and high blood pressure, as well.
Melatonin is the “sleep” hormone because it is integrally involved in the body’s sleep process. This hormone helps regulate the body’s internal clock, the process that triggers our need to sleep and wake up. Often, this process, known as circadian rhythm, is thrown out of whack due to illness, jet lag, or another commonplace disruption. However, when sleep quality and quantity are routinely poor, melatonin production could be to blame. The hormone is also important for regulating body temperature, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
Melatonin levels are not stagnant. They rise in the evening, alerting the body that it’s time to get ready for sleep. A few hours before waking, levels will decrease, alerting the body to prepare for waking. In the evening, if melatonin levels don’t rise, kids can have difficulty going to bed, making this a problematic time of day for them and their parents.
Disorders such as autism might affect a child’s sleep patterns. However, other conditions including circadian rhythm or mental health disorders can also cause sleep problems in kids. When children have insomnia on a regular basis, an undiagnosed health condition could be at play. On the other hand, sometimes it’s impossible for doctors to determine why some kids have difficulty falling asleep or getting adequate sleep.
In the United States and many countries, melatonin is available as a supplement. However, in many of these places, individuals require a prescription to obtain it. Regardless, with or without a prescription, parents worry about giving their child melatonin to help promote improved sleep. Their question is an important one: is it safe to give kids?
Studies indicate that in the short term, melatonin appears to be safe for kids; however, it can trigger side effects such as nausea, sweating, and headaches in some subjects. Moreover, the supplements haven’t been deemed safe for kids by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s also important to note that there is no consensus among medical professionals about whether or not melatonin is safe for kids to take on a long-term basis. There is no significant body of research in this area.
Many medical studies demonstrate that melatonin supplements do help kids sleep better—even kids who have conditions known to affect sleep, like autism. One study determined that melatonin helped children with autism fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Kids with some neurological conditions also experienced sleep improvements upon taking melatonin.
Many parents opt to take their children to a healthcare provider before starting a course of melatonin. There may be an underlying condition that is affecting the child’s sleep, and therefore a different type of treatment may provide longer-lasting improvement. Parents and doctors should investigate their children’s chronic sleep issues to determine, if possible, what is causing them.
Because there hasn’t been enough research around melatonin and kids, many parents may not wish to turn to the sleep hormone without a doctor’s recommendation. Before trying sleep aids like this one, it may be helpful to establish a strict bedtime routine to help kids fall asleep more quickly. Getting into bed at the same time each evening can help the body begin to recognize the correct time for producing melatonin and may make a positive difference in sleep patterns without the use of supplements.
Some kids have a hard time unwinding, which can make falling asleep difficult. Taking a bath before bedtime can help them feel more relaxed, which is in turn conducive to sleep. Limiting the use of technology in the evenings can also encourage relaxation, as electronic gadgets like iPads can stimulate the brain. A stimulated brain has more difficulty unwinding and entering the sleep cycle.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.