Regularly in Dr Chris Seton’s medical practice, parents ask him, if it’s okay to give melatonin to help their child sleep better. Of course it’s understandable a time poor parent is seeking a quick solution, such as taking a nightly tablet. But lets take a look at why Dr Seton does not recommend nightly melatonin supplements to correct your child’s sleep.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that’s produced by the pineal gland in the brain and is important in helping regulate the internal body clock’s cycle of sleep and wakefulness. Being in bright morning light reduces melatonin’s production, making us feel awake, and increases at night making us feel sleepy.
Blood melatonin level start to go up about 2 hours before sleep. Having the wrong amount of melatonin at the wrong time can cause problems with your child’s sleep. If your child has a late body clock (or you might call them a ‘night owl’), their melatonin levels are too low at night causing your teen to feel awake and conversely too high in the morning resulting in a tired and grumpy teenager who doesn’t want to get out of bed. This is a bit like permanent jetlag.
If this is sounding all too familiar, then you might be thinking the solution is to give your child melatonin supplements in the evening. But has this approach been thoroughly researched and shown to be safe and effective?
What research has been conducted on melatonin in kids?
The good news is some research suggests that, in adults, melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating jet lag or reducing the time it takes to fall asleep. Additionally some preliminary data suggests that melatonin may be effective in helping developmentally delayed children, especially autistic kids, with sleep problems.
However melatonin has not been carefully studied in children without a disability. Due to the lack of scientific evidence melatonin is definitely not recommended as a long term sleep aid for children and teens.
This lack of research on melatonin in kids means we do not know how common or severe side effects might be. We do know rare side effects from taking melatonin can include abdominal pain, more frequent seizures in kids with a history of them, hyperactivity, agitation, behavioral changes, worsening sleep patterns, nightmares and feelings of depression. More medical research is thus needed on children to ensure the side effect profile of melatonin is known, understood and safe.
Another concern about using this hormone for children is that melatonin levels have an impact on how the ovaries and testes function. Further study is needed to determine if taking melatonin during childhood or the teen years can have an impact on a person’s sexual development.
A 2012 study published in Paediatric Child Health concluded ‘…all studies have involved small numbers of subjects and address only short-term use of melatonin. There are no good data concerning the safety and efficacy of long-term melatonin use. Further studies are needed to confirm the usefulness and safety of melatonin for sleep disorders in children and adolescents.”
So what’s the solution?
Instead of using melatonin, or trying other sleep medications, the first critical step is considering why your child is having trouble sleeping and addressing this core issue.
If your child is not sleeping well, then you can consider the sleep rescheduling program SleepShack offering strategies to maximise correct sleep behaviour. This medically proven sleep treatment program will correct your child’s sleep deprivation without the use of melatonin.
Author – Ginni Seton, Manager SleepShack