Parenting·6 min read

The Truth About Melatonin and Whether It’s Safe for Kids

Melatonin for kids has become increasingly popular, but does it work? Experts break down the risks and share tips to help your kid sleep better.
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Oct 24, 2022

Raise your hand if you’ve ever Googled advice on how to get your child to sleep. *Throws up arms aggressively* The struggle is real. Enter: melatonin. More adults have been using it to help them sleep, and as a result — more kids have had access to melatonin at home. Melatonin is one of the most common supplements given to children (multivitamins take home the prize for most popular).

The increase in melatonin intake among kids over the past two decades has resulted in more emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers. Earlier this year, the CDC said that from 2012 to 2021, the number of kids taking melatonin yearly increased by 530% (that’s about five times more for those of us who hate math). The rise in melatonin use was so drastic the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a health advisory telling parents to talk to a doctor before giving their kids melatonin

Here’s the thing — getting severely ill from melatonin is unlikely. But the truth is, most kids don’t need melatonin for sleep. If your child is struggling with sleep (and it’s impacting the whole family), we’ll break down some alternatives to melatonin. But first…

What is melatonin, and how does it work?

Melatonin is a hormone our brain makes at night to help our internal clocks align. (Translation: It tells the body when it’s time to sleep). 

The FDA regulates melatonin (the sleep aid) as a dietary supplement. That means the FDA doesn’t approve them for safety and effectiveness the way it would for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. You can find melatonin over the counter for adults and kids. It comes as gummies, capsules, liquids, and even chewable chocolates — all with different dosages (which can get confusing). Note: Melatonin can help kids fall asleep, but it’s not a sleeping pill. It doesn’t make kids sleep or help them stay asleep longer. 

Even though melatonin is not officially FDA-approved as a sleep aid, many people use it to treat insomnia, jet lag, or sleep disorders associated with shift work (think: people who work overnight, early morning shifts, or rotating schedules). 

Do kids need melatonin?

“There are certain groups of children with special developmental disorders whose clocks don't work as well, and for that group, it's helpful,” said Dr. Carol Rosen, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist and pediatrics professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “The most common example is children with autism,” adds Dr. Rosen. “But for the majority of kids, they probably don't need a pill for sleep.”

Parents who are considering giving melatonin to their kids should ask their pediatrician about the right dosage. Dr. Rosen said it typically ranges from 1 to 6 mg. 

Is melatonin safe for kids?

In the short-term: Yes. But experts say they need more research on long-term use of melatonin.

Parents should talk to their pediatrician before giving their child melatonin. And remember, parents need to keep melatonin — and all supplements and medications — out of reach of children. 

CDC data from increasing pediatric ingestions over the past decade shows in most cases, kids showed no symptoms and were fine (aka: they didn’t need to be hospitalized). The majority of the cases involved kids under 6 who took melatonin accidentally. Remember: Those bottle caps aren’t child-proof. 

“If you took too much of it, you might have a headache, you might be dizzy, you might be irritable, but it doesn't have that toxicity the way hand sanitizer, other chemicals, or even way too much baby aspirin might have,” said Dr. Rosen. “The bottom line is it's really hard to overdose on melatonin. It’s something pretty easy to use, and kids very rarely have bad reactions. But when you have delicious-tasting gummies that someone could get into because it’s not put away, that's why you get into trouble.” (We all know how quickly toddlers can get ahold of things.)

One concern with melatonin? Not all brands and types are created equal. (Remember: Melatonin doesn’t have the same FDA oversight as prescription medications). And the actual melatonin content in the supplements can vary significantly. One study showed melatonin in some supplements had four times the amount stated on the label. Chewable tablets (the form of melatonin kids are most likely to take) had the most variability. And some products even contained other chemicals that need medical prescriptions (um, what)?

“One of the things parents can do about this is [to] look carefully at the bottle. There are some that have a USP Verified Mark, and those manufacturers have kind of voluntarily held their production to a higher standard,” said Dr. Rosen. 

Should parents give their child melatonin for sleep?

Probably not. Odds are they don’t need it (unless in the cases mentioned above). 

And Dr. Rosen said this is especially true for infants and babies. Babies develop their daytime and nighttime sleep schedule the first two years of life.

“Most problems that children have falling asleep are not because they didn't make enough melatonin or they need more. Most children are really good sleepers, and they don't need a sleep aid to fall asleep. The more powerful things are changing the bedroom environment and the timing,” said Dr. Rosen. 

This brings us to…

What are some alternatives to melatonin to help kids sleep better?

In most cases, looking at your kid’s bedtime schedule, routines, or habits will solve sleep problems.

Here are some tips:

  • Find the appropriate bedtime (this can depend on how much sleep your child needs)

  • Stick to a bedtime routine (for example: brushing teeth, reading a book, going to bed)

  • Give your child time to wind down (aka: Don’t have a dance party right before bed)

  • Follow the schedule even on the weekends (you shouldn’t vary bedtime or wake-up time by more than an hour)

  • Avoid exposure to screens at least an hour before bedtime 

  • Be aware if your child is distressed and needs help

What should parents do if their kid is distressed?

Sleep disruption can be a sign that your kid is struggling mentally (think: nightmares, early wake-ups, and difficulty falling asleep).

“It might be about some anxiety or worry and not about an internal inability to fall asleep. Sometimes the clues are that the child might want the parent to lay down in bed with them, and they might wake up and want to have that close comfort. Then, you might be looking at more things like worries, and you [should] get that behavioral help to help the child cope with whatever is making them worry,” said Dr. Rosen. 

theSkimm

Melatonin in children can work as a sleep aid in certain cases. But sleep experts say for most kids, parents should focus on the basics: a good bedtime, a consistent routine, and no screen time just before sleep. If you’ve given your child melatonin, don’t panic. The risks of using melatonin in kids are low. The key takeaway is that most children simply don’t need it to sleep. 

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