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By: Kevin Asp on September 1st, 2015

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Should you give your child melatonin to help him to fall asleep?

Sleep Technologist Advice

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There are important things to consider before you decide to give your child melatonin

It's a common parental worry when their child is having a hard time falling asleep. In some cases, using home remedies such as cutting out TV time before bed, giving warm baths or massages and even warm milk still won't ease them to sleep. That's why some parents have been turning to melatonin as an effective sleep aid for their children. But should pediatricians with young patients encourage parents to put their children on frequent melatonin doses?  What advice should sleep technologists give these parents?

Before we explore this question further, let's take a step back and define melatonin.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a natural hormone made by your body's pineal gland.  Melatonin controls your body's sleep and wake cycles. Because our body produces barely detectable amounts of melatonin during the day and more of it at night, it's sometimes called the Dracula of hormones that only comes out in the dark. Even if the pineal gland is switched "on" by the clock, it will not produce melatonin unless the person is in a dimly lit environment. In addition to sunlight, artificial indoor lighting can be bright enough to prevent the release of melatonin.

So how can I get additional melatonin? Why can it be found on the shelves of my favorite grocer?

Most of us have seen melatonin suppliments in health food stores or even in your average grocer chain. The interesting fact is that no other hormone is available in the United States without a prescription, other than melatonin. That's because melatonin is contained naturally in some foods, which explians why the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 allows it to be sold as a dietary supplement. Dietary supplements do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or controlled in the same way as drugs.

But before you consider giving your child melatonin

Consider trying other sleep inducing techniques, before jumping to melatonin usage as the first option. For instance, try changing your child's surroundings and bedtime behaviors to see if anything in particular is keeping your child from falling asleep. 

For most children with sleep problems, there is usually a specific cause that can be identified and treated before melatonin is considered as an option. For instance, your child might not be able to get enough sleep due to anxiety issues. If that's the case, then we recommend that you utilize some of the relaxation techniques we recommended in this article to get your child to sleep better.

If you think you've tried everything as a parent, then consider consulting your pediatrician or a sleep physician on what the next logical step might be. 

So how much melatonin should my child take and what are the possible side effects?

Because it is not categorized as a drug, synthetic melatonin is made in factories that are not regulated by the FDA. This can be a concern, especially since the listed doses may not be controlled or accurate, meaning the amount of melatonin in a pill you take may not be the amount listed on the package.

Most commercial products are offered at dosages that cause melatonin levels in the blood to rise to much higher levels than are naturally produced in the body. Taking a typical dose (1 to 3 mg) may elevate your blood melatonin levels to 1 to 20 times normal. 

For melatonin to be helpful, the correct dosage, method and time of day it is taken must be appropriate to the sleep problem. Taking it at the "wrong" time of day may reset your biological clock in an undesirable direction. While there are real concerns about the widespread use of melatonin sold as a consumer product, there have not been any reported cases of proven toxicity or overdose.

That's why it is crucial to consult a pediatrician or sleep physician before administering melatonin for your child before bed.

But when should your child take melatonin?

To help your child go to sleep, it's usually recommended that they take it around 30-60 minutes before you want them to go to bed. But you can also try giving it at different times to see when works best for your child.

Some studies have showed promise for the use of melatonin in shortening the time it takes for children to fall asleep and reducing the number of awakenings, but not necessarily shortening total sleep time. And other studies have shown no benefit to melatonin usage at all.

But keep in mind that there is still a need for large scale studies that will demonstrate whether or not melatonin is effective or sale for some young insomnia patients.

It may be true that melatonin is effective and safe for some types of insomnia and for children but not for other types of sleep problems. How much to take, when to take it and its effectiveness, if any, for particular disorders is only beginning of what we need to understand.

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