Melatonin for Children – To Use or Not To Use
Melatonin has been gaining in popularity as more companies are getting into the business and becoming a quick fix for tired parents. I can see the appeal since it’s marketed as an all-natural fix for little ones who can’t sleep. As the years have gone by, I am encountering more and more parents asking questions about or already using melatonin. So, I think it’s about time we had an honest and open chat about melatonin, the pros and cons.
Why is Melatonin So Popular?
As the market is shifting, parents are now looking for more all-natural ways to help their baby or children. This is a big reason why melatonin has become so popular. Melatonin seems like a significantly healthier option in comparison to the old school suggestions of Benadryl or whiskey, and melatonin IS a naturally occurring hormone in your body and in food. Certainly, most people can agree they would prefer taking a natural supplement over a lab created chemical.
Similarly, many people have chosen probiotics hoping to help their gut and overall health instead of taking pharmaceuticals. Now, I am not anti-medication, so if you need serious medicine for a heart condition, please follow all doctor recommendations. However, when it comes to supplements, I suggest you do your homework just like anything else you’d put on or in your body.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “no other hormone is available in the United States without a prescription”. Because melatonin is contained naturally in some foods, the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 allows it to be sold as a dietary supplement.
These supplements do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or controlled in the same way as other drugs.” Whenever drug companies don’t have any set regulations or third-party control testing, I am particularly more thorough with doing my homework on the medicine and the company producing it.
When it comes to melatonin, I have done some of the homework for you, so let’s review what I have found.
What is Melatonin?
First, we’ll do a quick overview of what melatonin actually is. In the simplest terms, it is a hormone that is released from the pineal gland, that helps calm your body and mind when your body says it’s time for sleep. Melatonin has a counterpart which you may have heard of called Cortisol. Cortisol is released to do the opposite, stimulating your mind and body to get you up and moving. The balance of these two hormones is what regulates your internal “body clock.” The actual complicated process that is the human body’s biology is something scientists are still working out and I won’t stop expanding what I do know.
As Dr. Luis Buenaver, a sleep expert from Johns Hopkins explains it, “Your body produces melatonin naturally. It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
How Does it Work?
We can discuss in a bit more detail about how your body knows when to produce melatonin. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty natural process. When the brain recognizes that night is coming by the setting sun, your brain starts pumping out melatonin. A pretty solid concept that had worked for thousands of years, until the invention of electricity, light bulbs, TV’s and smartphones. These days our brain can have a pretty hard time deciding when it’s actually nighttime. So, all this artificial light can lead to a lack of melatonin production, therefore messing up our natural body clocks and creating sleep troubles and possible insomnia.
Now there are times where our body clocks are thrown off due to things outside of our control – like travel and shift working hours. In times of change, melatonin can be a helpful tool to reset our body clock. However, melatonin isn’t the solution but just a tool to help get your body’s clock back on schedule.
My first piece of advice for those that struggle with sleep is to shut the screens off, a couple hours before they go to sleep and dim the lighting in the house as bedtime approaches. These environmental lighting cues will help your body do what it naturally wants to – produce melatonin and go to sleep. Side note: This is not the case for insomniacs. People with psychological or physical conditions that inhibit their sleep should definitely consult with their physicians.
What About the Children?
This all seems good and well, but what about the babies and children? All this information still applies to little ones, with the exception of newborns who won’t start producing melatonin or cortisol until about 2 months. For this reason, I also recommend to newborn parents to start establishing a 24-hour light cycle, with 12 hours of bright light and 12 hours of pitch black. Once their body does start producing those hormones they will sync with the established light cycles, making it easier for your baby to start sleeping longer stretches at night.
The Big Question Is – Will melatonin Help Your Child Sleep?
The general consensus among sleep specialists, researchers and doctors worldwide is . . . No. The National Sleep Foundation has found that, “when scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a “sleeping pill” to a placebo (sugar pill) most studies show no benefit of melatonin.”
However, it’s important to note that some studies have shown that melatonin can be helpful with autistic children, children with ADHD, or other medical conditions where the body or brain is unable to perform its usual hormonal functions.
Now, I do think being fully informed is important, and so far, we’ve only discussed the hormone itself and if it can have any benefits. Taking melatonin as a supplement can have serious side effects.
Dr. Johnson-Arbor, a Hartford Hospital toxicologist, says, “It’s (melatonin) possibly thought to affect growth, and to affect sexual development and puberty.” Other side-effects can include headaches, drowsiness and stomach aches.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Melatonin should not be used in most children. It is possibly unsafe. Because of its effects on other hormones, melatonin might interfere with development.”
There have also been studies that showed early sexual development in animal subjects given melatonin. However, the link in human children hasn’t been established. Again, I am not in any way against homeopathic or naturopathic medicine. In particular cases, where the effects are psychological, some will claim that the melatonin does indeed help them sleep. If it’s simply a placebo effect for some of them, then it’s not a big deal as they are getting the sleep they need, and ultimately, that’s vitally important in its own right.
Nevertheless, when it comes to babies and young kids, it is our job as parents to give our children the tools and skills they will need to be happy and healthy adults. That includes helping our little ones learn the ability to create a positive relationship with sleep. The good news is that babies and children really do love sleep and they do need a lot of it! Babies and children do need a lot of sleep for a relatively short period in their lives and everything in the body is trying to help ensure they get it. Sometimes they just need some guidance to develop and learn the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep.
Learning More About Sleep
You can learn more about teaching independent sleep skills throughout my website and in my other blogs. Still, I am not a believer in using sleep aids or props, but instead teaching and creating positive relations with sleep. Using Benadryl, melatonin or whiskey has got nothing on that!
However, I know it’s easier said than done, so just like learning any other skill, it takes practice and time. No supplements will teach you how to master cooking, help you do complicated math, or even help teach you a new sport. Sleep is a natural process but is ultimately still a learned skill. It needs to be developed and practiced, which I know isn’t as easy as taking a pill but is worth the effort in the end.
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So before reaching for a quick fix, it may be worth doing your homework and finding the right bedtime routine for you and your family. I promise you that the results will be better than any pill, and they’ll last longer too!
Not sure where or how to get started with making such a big change? Let’s chat and together we can find the right answer for you and your family!