Is Melatonin Safe for Kids?
Long before urgent cares and pharmacies existed, there were insects, plants, and herbs that were used to alleviate the symptoms of common health issues naturally. The hype around natural cures for common ailments seems to have been reinvigorated lately as parents (and non-parents alike) strive to live the healthiest lifestyle possible.
Use lavender to cure headaches
Try primrose oil to clear up eczema
UTI? Drink cranberry juice
Put raw honey on your chapped lips
Soothe burns with tea bags.
I should stipulate here that I’m not anti-homeopathy, nor am I anti-pharmaceutical. I feel that health decisions are something that should be carefully considered by each individual with the advice of their doctor or other trusted health provider. If using probiotics have been a game-changer for your gut health, I say go for it! If you need medication to lower your cholesterol, then you should probably take that too.
But I firmly believe that anything going into your body and – every bit as importantly – into your child’s body, should be evaluated for its efficacy and possible side-effects. Therefore, I think it’s important that I address a buzzword of the past few years: melatonin.
Melatonin has been touted by many homeopathic experts as a safe, natural way of helping people get to sleep. In a lot of ways this is very true, but there’s actually a whole lot more to understand about it before you start incorporating it into you or your child’s daily regimen.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted from the pineal gland and helps to settle your body and mind down when it’s time to sleep. How exactly it does this is a very complicated process and involves more biology than I will ever be able to understand much less explain. So, in the simplest terms, melatonin is your brain’s way of closing the shades for the night. On the flip side, we have melatonin’s counterpart, cortisol. Cortisol acts by opening those shades back up in the morning, and the two hormones act together to make up a large part of what we refer to as our “body clock.”
One thing that is important to understand is that our bodies are already producing melatonin naturally. Taking melatonin is not like taking a traditional sleep aid that will make you conk out (like Ambien). Instead, as melatonin levels rise in the evening, it allows our bodies to relax and be primed for sleep.
But how does our body know to produce it at 6:00 p.m. and not 6:00 a.m.? Actually, this is quite a natural process. When it starts to get dark, the body starts to recognize the onset of night and gets the melatonin pumps up and running. You can imagine that this process worked like a charm during the pre-industrial days before we invented the lightbulb. And the television. And the laptop. And the smartphone.
Nowadays, our eyes are flooded with so much artificial light that it can be difficult for our brains to determine when night is actually approaching. If melatonin does not have the opportunity to rise, it messes up our body clock (which is a contributing factor to insomnia). So, my first piece of advice for anyone struggling with sleep (especially you adults) is to turn off those screens a couple hours before bedtime, turn down the lights in your house, and come up with a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine. This will let your body know that it’s time for sleep and a lot of the leg-work towards drifting off into dreamland will be done for you! (Please note: It is not always this simple. For those with physical or psychological conditions that impact sleep, please consult with your physician for a plan of action.)
And in some cases – jet-lag and shift work being the biggest two – a melatonin supplement can help to reset the body clock if it’s been thrown out of whack. However, in general (and especially in children) melatonin is not a solution to sleep issues.
Melatonin and Kids
When it comes to kids, all of this information about body clocks and hormone production still applies. That being said, newborns are a bit of an exception as they don’t start producing melatonin or cortisol until after 8 weeks of age. But beyond the first couple months, infants will start to establish a 24-hour light-dark sleep cycle which they will follow throughout their life.
Now the big question: Will giving my child melatonin help them sleep through the night?
And the answer is: No, it will not.
While it’s possible that it might help them get to sleep at night, it most certainly will not help them stay asleep. And this isn’t just my opinion; this is the general consensus of sleep specialists, researchers, and doctors worldwide. 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.” Additionally, melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body so taking more of it can have serious side effects such as abdominal pain, excessive sweating, vision problems, nausea, daytime laziness, and drowsiness.
Again, I am in no way anti-homeopathic or naturopathic medicine. There are very real uses for melatonin (as mentioned above) and it has proven to be very helpful in certain cases. Whether this is a placebo effect for some, no big deal! They’re getting the sleep they need and that’s vitally important in its own right. But when it comes to young children, I feel that it’s essential for us as parents to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.
How CAN I help my child sleep better?
Here’s the good news: kids and sleep go together like peanut butter and jelly. Children need a LOT of sleep, and, for a short period in their lives, everything in the bodies are primed to help ensure they get it. All they need from us is a little guidance and a bit of space so they can develop the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.
Consistently giving children any type of sleep aid (whether that is melatonin or Benadryl) to get them snoozing is definitely not the answer. Just like learning any other skill, it takes practice and time to teach your little one how to sleep. There’s no supplement that can teach you how to play and instrument, do long division, or sharpen your golf game (wouldn’t that be nice). Sleep is exactly the same. It’s a skill that needs to be developed and once it is, it comes easily and naturally most of the time.
So before you reach for the pills, try establishing a predictable and consistent bedtime routine, shutting down the TVs and tablets a couple hours before bed, and encouraging your child to fall asleep without feeding, rocking, or other forms of outside help. I promise you, the results will be better than anything you’ll get from a pill and they’ll last a lifetime!
And if you need some help with this, I got you!