Should you give your child melatonin?
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Americans spent approximately $408 million on melatonin in 2017, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. I saw it firsthand when I used to work at a health food store and the melatonin supplements would fly off the shelves. And now, even children are being given melatonin to help them sleep better. So what's the deal with this magic pill? Does it work? Is it safe? Keep reading to find out...
First of all, what is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our bodies that helps us sleep. Melatonin levels begin to rise in the evening as the sun begins to set, then peak during the night, and taper off toward morning when it's time to wake up.
Contrary to popular belief, melatonin doesn't actually put us to sleep. As Dr. Luis Buenaver, a sleep expert from Johns Hopkins explains it, “Your body produces melatonin naturally. It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
You may think that melatonin is "natural." And the hormone produced by your body is natural, of course. But the melatonin supplement you buy in the store is actually an artificial version of the natural hormone.
Does my child need to take melatonin?
One reason so many of us have trouble sleeping is because artificial bright at night lights suppress the production of melatonin. Blue screens from tv's, computers, and phones also keep our body from making melatonin. So if your child has a hard time going to sleep at night, one of the best things to try is to restrict blue screens at least an hour before bedtime.
Melatonin levels decrease as we get older so it may make sense to take it later in life if you have trouble sleeping. But a normal, healthy child should have the ability to make the melatonin that he needs. There's also some belief that your body stops producing melatonin if you start supplementing with it.
Now, when it comes to kids, all of this information still applies. Newborns are something of an exception, as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they’re about 2 months old. Until then, they’re kind of flying by the seat of their pants, sleep-wise, as I’m sure you probably already know if you have any of your own. But past the 2 month mark, they start to establish a 24- hour light-dark sleep cycle, which is the standard sleep cycle that we follow throughout our lives.
So now we get to the big question...
“Will giving my child melatonin help him sleep through the night?”
And the answer is, “No it will not.”
It might help him GET to sleep at night, but it will not help them stay asleep.
This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. This is the general consensus of sleep specialist, researchers, and doctors worldwide.
The Sleep Foundation states, "when scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a "sleeping pill" to a placebo (sugar pill) most studies show no benefit of melatonin." Richard Wurtman led a meta-analysis of studies on melatonin at MIT and found that, "After a few days, it stops working" because the receptors in the brain stop responding when there's too much of the hormone.
Is melatonin safe?
David Kennaway, the director of the circadian physiology lab at the University of Adelaide in Australia, says there is “extensive evidence from laboratory studies that melatonin causes changes in multiple physiological systems, including cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems, as well as reproduction in animals,” and its effects on children’s developing bodies is yet unstudied.
It does make sense to use melatonin for some situations. As Krithika Varagur writes for the Huffington Post, " Melatonin is meant to reset the body’s internal clock — for example, it’s appropriate to use the supplement to counter the effects of jet lag, or help someone sleep if they have an unusual work schedule or suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder. It should not be used for general insomnia."
After reading so much about melatonin to write this blog, I'm convinced that supplementing with melatonin is not a good idea, especially for children. Instead, I feel that it’s essential for us as parents to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.
And here’s the good news. Kids and sleep go together like mac and cheese. They need a LOT of sleep. And for a short period in their lives, everything in their bodies is tuned to help ensure they get it. All they need from us is a little guidance and a determination to step out of the way so they can develop the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep on their own.
You can check out some of my other blog posts for tips on how to teach independent sleep skills, since this is already getting a little wordy. But giving them any kind of sleep aid is definitely not the answer, whether it’s melatonin or Benadryl.
Just like learning any other skill, sleeping well can take practice and time. There’s no supplement that can teach you how to play an instrument, teach you long division, or sharpen your golf game.
Sleep is, in essence, exactly the same thing. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, and once it is, it comes easily and naturally. So before you reach for the pills, try:
1. establishing a predictable, consistent bedtime routine
2. shutting down the TVs and tablets a couple of hours before bed
3. encouraging your child to fall asleep without feeding, rocking, or other forms of outside help
I promise you, the results will be better than anything you’ll get from a pill. And they’ll last them a lifetime.
(If you're like me and you had trouble sleeping during pregnancy, you may be tempted to take melatonin to sleep better. Read Jenny Silverstone's blog post on her Mom Loves Best site where she discusses taking melatonin when you're pregnant: https://momlovesbest.com/melatonin-while-pregnant.)