Before you consider sleep supplements as a parent, you should be sure you understand sleep cycles. Here's how they work:
Our brain starts releasing melatonin as it gets dark at night to help us fall asleep. In the a.m., when we need to wake up, the melatonin mostly shuts off. Supplements, a synthetic form of natural melatonin, usually make kids (or adults) tired within 30 minutes. Although low doses (1 to 2 milligrams for kids ages 4 to 6; 2 to 3 milligrams for ages 6 to 12) may be safe, 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,” Dr. Owens says. “It 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.”
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Research shows that melatonin supplements can help children who have ADHD, autism, and other neurodevelopmental disorders fall asleep faster, and a few studies have shown similar effects in typically developing kids. But they may not help any child stay asleep.
If your child is having trouble settling down, ask yourself why. Is he worried about something? Is his bedtime too early? Perhaps he has sleep apnea or restless legs?
Melatonin can aid kids who have major difficulty falling asleep, but talk to your child’s doc before giving it to him. The supplements should always be used with other behavioral interventions and for as short a time as possible.
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Giving too much melatonin, or giving it at the wrong time, could mess up your child’s sleep schedule, so don’t feed her a gummy in the middle of the night if she can’t get back to sleep. 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.
Make your kid’s after-dinner routine the priority: Stop using screens at least an hour before bed (the light suppresses melatonin), and aim for ten to 12 hours of sleep each night. If the issue persists, talk to your pediatrician for next steps.