Is Melatonin Safe for Kids?
Parents are using melatonin gummies to help their children sleep. Here, an expert weighs in on whether these over-the-counter supplements are safe for kids.
Kids need plenty of shut-eye to fuel their growth and development—but 15 to 25 percent of young people have trouble falling and staying asleep, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Lack of sleep has plenty of negative consequences, ranging from difficulty concentrating to obesity to crankiness. That's why some parents are tempted to give their children a sleep supplement like melatonin during restless nights. But is melatonin safe, and does it have any side effects for kids? We spoke with an expert to learn more.
How Does Melatonin Work?
Before you consider bedtime supplements as a parent, you should understand sleep cycles. Here's how they work: Our brain starts releasing melatonin—a hormone produced in the pineal gland—as it gets dark at night to help us fall asleep. In the morning, when we need to wake up, the melatonin mostly shuts off. Essentially, melatonin works by regulating your circadian rhythm, also known as your "internal clock."
Supplements are a synthetic form of natural melatonin, and they usually make kids (or adults) tired within 30 minutes. They're available over-the-counter as gummies, pills, liquids, or chewable tablets. Research shows that melatonin supplements can help children who have autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental disorders fall asleep faster, and a few studies have shown similar effects in typically developing kids.
Is Melatonin Bad for Kids?
Low doses of melatonin may be safe for children. That said, researchers still don't know the long-term side effects of taking any amount—even on an as-needed basis. "Melatonin is a drug and should be seen as that," says Judith Owens, M.D., director of the Sleep Center at Boston Children's Hospital.
Giving too much melatonin, or giving it at the wrong time, could mess up your child's sleep schedule. Dr. Owens also warns that the concentration of OTC melatonin in supplements can vary, and they may contain other chemicals, such as serotonin. One study found that some chewable tablets claiming to contain 1.5 milligrams of melatonin had as much as 9 milligrams.
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Additionally, some children may have side effects from taking melatonin, which might include headaches, nausea, sweating, dizziness, bed wetting, and drowsiness in the morning. It's important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't approved the use of melatonin for kids.
Melatonin Dosage for Kids
Always talk to your child's doctor before giving them melatonin. They can help determine if the supplement is necessary, and they can also advise on dosage and timing. Most experts will recommend starting with a low dose—usually around 1 to 2 milligrams for kids ages 4 to 6 and 2 to 3 milligrams for ages 6 to 12. Melatonin should be used with other behavioral interventions and for as short a time as possible.
Because melatonin could mess up sleep schedules when taken at the wrong time, you shouldn't give it to kids in the middle of the night. Also, while the supplement can aid kids who have major difficulty falling asleep, it may not help any child stay asleep.
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How to Help Kids Sleep—Without Melatonin
Before considering gummy, chewable, capsule, or liquid melatonin for kids, you might want to try other methods to help them sleep. If the issue persists, though, talk to your pediatrician for next steps.
Find the root cause of restlessness. If your child is having trouble settling down, ask yourself why. Are they worried about something? Is their bedtime too early? Perhaps they have sleep apnea or restless legs? Pinpointing the cause can help you find an effective solution.
Go to bed at the same time each night. While kids might fight against a set bedtime, having a predictable sleep schedule can regulate their internal clock.
Create a bedtime routine. Help your child relax before bed with meditation, music, reading, or other soothing activities. "What the actual routines are can be specific to your child and his or her age, but they should occur each night around the same time," according to the AAP. "This will help your child understand that it's time to settle down and get ready to sleep."
Limit technology before bed. Stop using screens at least an hour before bed (the light suppresses melatonin).
Get enough sleep. Aim to have your child get ten to 12 hours of sleep each night to prevent over-tiredness.
The Bottom Line
When taken with a doctor's approval, melatonin may help solve some children's sleep issues—especially if it's paired with other behavioral interventions. Still, the supplement "shouldn't be used as a substitute for good sleep habits, like maintaining a bedtime routine, especially if your child doesn't have a diagnosed sleep problem," says Dr. Owens.