Should I give melatonin to my kids?

melatonin children

Dessert or medication?

Melatonin: Funny-tasting cupcake sprinkles & special juice

Getting kids to go to sleep is an eternal challenge, but a particular torment for the modern parent. With kids zonking out in front of screens and both parents working, schedules are an orchestration and time is a crunch. It’s not easy, and it’s probably never been harder. To that end, what parent hasn’t joked — or even fantasized — about drugging their kids to get them to go to sleep?

Well, it’s not a joke anymore. Parents are increasingly turning to melatonin, a hormone that the body naturally produces in order to induce slumber, to conk their kids out. Broadly speaking, use of melatonin has been on the rise — Nutrition Business Journal reported that sales spiked from $90 million in 2007 to $260 million in 2012. The emergence of melatonin products clearly designed for kids shows how common melatonin’s use for children is becoming. (See a colourful, strawberry-flavoured sampling here.)

An odious indication of melatonin’s popularity: In June 2013, Ohioan daycare operator Tammy Eppley was charged with endangering children for administering melatonin and Benadryl to the children left in her care at “the Caterpiller Clubhouse.” (She also joked, according to the police report, about nearly being found out when a child complained that the sprinkles on some cupcakes “tasted funny.”) None of the children’s parents had given permission for her to drug the children. And, perhaps predictably, Eppley boasted of her ability to get the children in her care to sleep soundly.

But it’s not just daycare operators misusing melatonin. “I’ve never seen such widespread abuse of any drug or therapy in all my years of practice,” Stuart Ditchek, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, told Jennifer Breheny Wallace of the Wall Street Journal.

How did melatonin become so popular?

melatonin marketing for kids

First isolated in 1958, melatonin has only been studied for its properties as a sleep aid for about 20 years. In the 90s, scientists began to investigate whether children with disabilities benefitted from a regime of melatonin. Those results were favourable — although it’s important to remember that the majority of research on melatonin use in children remains on children with major disabilities and relatively small sample sizes.

A literature review of the few melatonin studies on children who were not disabled found that melatonin use had some undesirable short-term side effects: worsening of asthma symptoms to the point where its use among asthmatics was not recommended. Those prone to seizures had more seizures and there was at least one documented case of melatonin causing epilepsy. Symptoms of depression amongst the depressed worsened as well. Researchers also noted that melatonin has contraceptive properties and can delay puberty. Plus, no research has been done to evaluate the long-term effects. Ultimately, they advised that the physician prescribing melatonin would be responsible for any of these side effects. Plus, the doses in commercial melatonin supplements are irregular.

Not exactly the blanket endorsement that the “pediatrician recommended” labels on child-specific melatonin pills would suggest!

But my kid won’t go to sleep!

The issue of children’s sleep is a quality of life one, particularly for the parents. Reviews of the child-specific products on Amazon have a lot of common themes: children who won’t go to bed easily. Left in their rooms, they jump off of bunk beds. They refuse to go to bed when told. Having a pill that calms the drama is so easy. And so ebullient customer reviews such as the following:

These tablets are simply amazing!! My son is gifted and does not sleep but only a few hours every night. No naps! […] Instead of my son tossing and turning for hours, he drifts off within 30 minutes or so. These little tablets help him to wind down and to rest. If we run out before our next shipment arrives, he is up all night. Love these & don’t know what I would do without them!!

And while the parents are happy, the experts sing a different song. In the Wall Street Journal article cited above, Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist “who knows parents that have given melatonin to their children for years at a stretch,” is quoted saying: “Parents are using melatonin because they are stressed out. […] They come home late, eat dinner late, and they think they can just flick an on-off switch for their children to get to sleep.”

Well, how am I to get the kids to sleep?

one kid that won't go to sleep

It’s a little sadistic to boast about your ability to get the children in your care to go to sleep when you’re actually drugging them, à la Eppley. Nonetheless, the ability to put your kid to sleep is undeniably linked to one’s adequacy as a parent or caregiver.

The lousy thing is this: the solution for most kids’ sleep problems is in parenting. (Sorry.) The vast majority of sleep disturbances in children can be remedied by simply practicing better sleep hygiene. While it’s tempting to let the kids watch television late and/or bounce around til after dark, quiet bedtime routines in the two hours before bed better prepare kids for sleep. Think a warm bath, reading together, and cuddling in bed. Skip the screens and stick to a schedule. For all the details, see our sleeping guide for children.

Remember that children aren’t robots whose batteries can be removed at the end of the day — there’s usually a reason why kids aren’t sleeping. Talk about it. There aren’t shortcuts. And save the melatonin for when you’re passing through time zones.

Jay Smith is chief bloggist at Novosbed.