Sleep plays an essential role in overall health and well-being. Sleep is especially important for children as their bodies and brains are still growing and developing.
Melatonin supplements are a popular treatment for children who have trouble falling asleep. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes melatonin as a dietary supplement rather than a medical drug.
The regulation of dietary supplements is less strict than for prescription or other-the-counter medications. This makes melatonin easier to access but also means that there are no clear dosage or safety guidelines in place.
In this article, we discuss what melatonin is and whether it is effective for treating children with sleeping difficulties. We also look at safe dosage and side effects of melatonin and tips for helping children sleep.
What is melatonin?
If a child does not produce enough melatonin, they may develop insomnia.
Melatonin is a hormone that occurs naturally in the body. A small structure in the brain known as the pineal gland produces and releases melatonin to control the body's circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle in which a person's brain switches between states of alertness and drowsiness. The circadian rhythm is important in determining both sleeping and eating patterns in humans.
Children whose pineal glands do not produce enough melatonin, or experience a delay in melatonin secretion, may develop insomnia.
Is melatonin effective?
Some studies suggest that melatonin may help children fall asleep faster. Melatonin may also improve children's quality of sleep.
A 2017 study examined the effects of melatonin in children with chronic sleep onset insomnia (SOI). Children with SOI have difficulty falling asleep. The researchers randomized the children to receive either:
- 3 milligram (mg) tablets of fast-release melatonin
- light therapy
- a placebo
The study concluded that melatonin was significantly more effective at reducing the time it took for children to fall asleep than placebo. The researchers also noted that melatonin had more and stronger effects than light therapy.
A small 2015 study investigated melatonin as a sleeping aid for children with epilepsy. The researchers found that children who took 9 mg of sustained-release melatonin fell asleep 11.4 minutes faster than children who took a placebo.
A paper from 2013 reviewed five studies that investigated drug treatments for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The researchers concluded that melatonin seems to have positive effects on treating the symptoms of insomnia in children with ADHD. However, they also state that further research is required to confirm these findings.
Safe dosage in children
Although some studies suggest that melatonin may be an effective treatment for children with sleeping problems, proper treatment duration and dosage remain unclear.
Melatonin comes in several forms, including children-specific formulation, such as gummies and liquids. Because the FDA consider melatonin as a dietary supplement rather than a medication, there are no official dosage guidelines for either children or adults.
Speak to a doctor or pediatrician before giving melatonin to a child. A healthcare professional can advise on a whether children with sleeping difficulties may benefit from taking melatonin and other treatment options.
A doctor can also advise on a safe and effective dosage of melatonin for the child. They may suggest starting at a very low dose and adjusting as necessary. For treating sleeping problems, it is usually best for children to take melatonin 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
Some children may experience headaches, bed wetting, and dizziness when taking melatonin.
Studies seem to suggest that melatonin is safe for children in the short-term. However, melatonin can cause side effects in children, and it is best to speak to a doctor before giving melatonin to a child.
Other possible side effects of melatonin can include:
- abdominal pain
- excessive sweating
- problems with vision
- daytime laziness
It is also important to note that there is little research into the safety of long-term melatonin use in children.
Tips for helping children sleep
For children with sleeping difficulties, it is always best to make lifestyle changes before trying medications. If these changes are unsuccessful, a doctor or pediatrician can advise on other treatment options.
Lifestyle changes that may help improve a child's sleep include:
- Setting a regular bedtime. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can make it easy for the body to fall asleep.
- Having a pre-bedtime routine. Research suggests following a routine before bed can help children sleep. For example, one study found a three-step bedtime routine to be effective. This involved the children having a bath, applying lotion, and doing soothing activities, such as singing a lullaby, with lights out 30 minutes after the bath.
- Only using the bed for sleeping. Performing other activities on the bed makes it harder for the brain to associate the bed with sleep.
- Keeping the bedroom cool. This helps initiate the sleep process. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the ideal bedroom temperature is between 60°F and 67°F.
- Turning off electronic devices. Using smartphones, TVs, and tablets before bedtime can affect a child's ability to fall asleep. Trying enforcing a "no electronics policy" during the child's pre-bedtime routine.
When to see a doctor
If a child's sleeping difficulties do not improve with lifestyle changes, they should see a doctor.
For children with sleeping difficulties, see a doctor or pediatrician if lifestyle changes are unsuccessful. Also, see a doctor if the child has any of the following symptoms:
- loud snoring that interrupts sleep
- frequent nightmares or night terrors
- excessive bed wetting
- severe drowsiness during daytime hours
Insufficient or poor quality sleep can adversely affect a child's physical health, academic performance, and psychological well-being. Inadequate sleep can also lead to behavioral or mental health issues, such as irritability, depression, anxiety, or hyperactivity.
Research suggests that melatonin may help children with sleeping difficulties. However, it is important to try lifestyle changes and speak to a doctor before trying medications. There is also little research into the effects of long-term melatonin use in children.
Lifestyle interventions that may help a child sleep better include establishing a regular sleeping routine, limiting the use of electronic devices before bedtime, and keeping the bedroom at a cooler temperature at night.