Melatonin is the sleep hormone. It relaxes our bodies and increases our drive to sleep. Babies begin to produce it around the third month of life as their sleep patterns start to organize. To some, melatonin is becoming the cure-all, magic pill for sleep.
The practice of parents administering melatonin to young children is becoming increasingly popular. Products marketed specifically as sleep aids for children are on the rise and being more commonly used among families. Many believe that since melatonin is naturally produced in our bodies, giving it to children as a supplement must be safe.
The Canadian Paediatrics Society estimates that 15-20% of children and adolescents have difficulty falling or staying asleep. Current research reflects the benefits of melatonin for children with sleep disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and other special populations. It should be noted that all of these studies involved a small population and only sought findings of short-term use.
The Canadian Paediatrics Society states, “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.” Further, Health Canada supports the use of melatonin for sleep problems only in adults. Overall, current research supports that establishing good sleep hygiene is the first step in managing both disorderly sleep and sleep disorders.
So what are parents to do if they feel they’ve tried it all and their child still doesn’t sleep well? First, understand that melatonin is not a safe long-term strategy to help your child sleep and should only be used under the direction of a physician. Second, we must recognize that the vast majority of children with sleep difficulties are dealing with disorderly sleep, rather than a sleep disorder, which means behavioural interventions offer an appropriate solution.
Brush up on the following sleep basics and encourage your child to learn the skill of sleep without resorting to unnecessary and potentially harmful melatonin supplements.
- Realize that sleep is a behaviour that we all need to learn. It is not uncommon for children with poor sleep skills to become adults with poor sleep skills.
- Focus on sleep hygiene. Expose your child to light during the day to set her circadian rhythm, or body clock. Implement a soothing routine before bedtime which may include a bath, time to wind down, quiet play or reading.
- Understand that screen time inhibits the body’s production of natural melatonin. The blue light that is emitted from our devices can prevent our bodies from reaching the deeper stages of sleep. It’s during these stages that the growth hormone is secreted. When children don’t get the benefit of the growth hormone they wake up feeling unrested. No screens after supper is a good family rule to promote healthy sleep.
- Take a look at the sleep schedule. Most children are not getting enough sleep. When children are overtired their bodies secrete excess cortisol which makes it difficult for them to fall and stay asleep. Babies, toddlers and younger elementary school age children still need 11-12 hours of sleep per night.
- Do a sweep of your child’s environment to ensure it promotes healthy sleep. The room should be dark, cool and quiet. Rooms that are free of distraction and clutter are more conducive to settling little bodies to sleep.
- Consistency is the key to teaching the skill of sleep. If you have struggled to consistently promote sleep hygiene, turn off screens in the evening, establish an age-appropriate sleep schedule or create a suitable sleep environment, your child will likely have difficulty learning the skill of sleep.
- Consider hiring a sleep professional. Sleep Consultants have specialized training in child sleep are able to bring some objectivity, a fresh perspective, and much needed encouragement to a situation that may feel hopeless. Behavioural interventions have been proven to be effective in the vast majority of cases. It is only a very minimal population of children who require further support or medical intervention.
Alysa Dobson is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant with SleepWell Baby. She works with families to help them get the sleep they need. Alysa offers support to parents with children ages 4 months- 8 years old through both in home and remote consultations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cummings, C.; Canadian Paediatric Society, Community Paediatrics Committee. Melatonin for the management of sleep disorders in children and adolescents. Paediatric Child Health 2012; 17(6): 331-3.