When getting to sleep or staying asleep is a struggle, melatonin can feel like a godsend. This supplement, which is actually a hormone our brain releases to tell your body it’s time to sleep, can be a helpful tool when you desperately needs some shut-eye, which Americans clearly do; a 2014 study found that melatonin sales increased by over 500 percent between 2003 and 2014. And while melatonin use among adults is booming (and potentially concerning in its own right), a new study has found that more kids are using melatonin as well — a trend that comes with some potential risks of its own.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that nearly 1 in 5 children and preteens now take melatonin for sleep, and some parents frequently give the supplement to preschoolers.
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“We hope this paper raises awareness for parents and clinicians, and sounds the alarm for the scientific community,” said lead author Lauren Hartstein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sleep and Development Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, per a CU Boulder press release. “We are not saying that melatonin is necessarily harmful to children. But much more research needs to be done before we can state with confidence that it is safe for kids to be taking long-term.”
In the study, researchers surveyed about 1,000 parents in the first half of 2023 about the use of melatonin among their kids. They found that over 18 percent of children ages 5 to 9 had been given melatonin in the last 30 days. The number went up to 19.4 percent among preteens ages 10 to 13, and hovered at nearly 6 percent among preschoolers ages 1 to 4.
The study also found that those kids had been taking melatonin for a while. Among preschoolers, the median length of time taking melatonin was a year; for kids from 5 to 9, 18 months; and for kids 10 to 13, 21 months.
The issue, Dr. Hartstein explained, is that melatonin isn’t regulated in the US (and is actually banned for over-the-counter use in countries the UK, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada). As a result, research has found that the amount of melatonin advertised on products isn’t always accurate. A 2017 study of 31 melatonin supplements in Canada (before OTC use was banned) found that the melatonin content varied from containing 83 percent less than advertised to 478 percent (!) more than advertised.
In other words, when it comes to melatonin supplements, “parents may not actually know what they are giving to their children,” Dr. Hartstein stated. That’s a serious issue, especially when you consider that melatonin overdoses in US kids have skyrocketed in the last decade, increasing by 530 percent between 2012 and 2021, according to a 2022 CDC study. In 2022, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) issued new guidelines around the supplement’s use in kids, recommending that parents talk to a doctor before giving children melatonin.
Melatonin for kids “is almost never a first-line treatment,” said study co-author Julie Boergers, a psychologist and pediatric sleep specialist at Rhode Island Hospital and the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, in the press release. “Although it’s typically well-tolerated, whenever we’re using any kind of medication or supplement in a young, developing body we want to exercise caution.“
Melatonin might seem like an easy fix for kids’ sleep issues, but it may just be masking the issue instead of addressing the root of it, Dr. Hartstein noted. “If this many kids are taking melatonin, that suggests there are a lot of underlying sleep issues out there that need to be addressed.” The AASM guidelines agree with her, stating that many sleep problems “can be better managed with a change in schedules, habits, or behaviors rather than taking melatonin.”
So what does that mean for your kids? If they’re having trouble getting to sleep, go back to reinforcing that good ol’ bedtime routine — bath or shower, brush teeth, lower the lights, shut down the screens, pull out a book, whatever helps your kid relax and wind down. Stick to that scheduled, familiar bedtime as much as possible to help them stay on track.
When your child is having sleep issues, the frustration is real. They’re tired and cranky, you’re tired and cranky, and you just want them to sleep. If tweaking their schedule or routine isn’t working or your child’s sleep problems are chronic, make sure to talk to your doctor or pediatrician before reaching in the medicine cabinet. Melatonin works, but it comes with potential risks and a lack of regulation, so it’s a good idea to try other fixes first.
Before you go, check out these natural products that can help soothe your child’s cold:
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