As a mom and a Northern Colorado sleep consultant, I constantly see sleep discussed in mom groups, whether on social media or other networking avenues. In fact, sleep may be one of the most popular topics discussed due to its importance to basically every parent on the planet. How can I get more sleep? When will my baby sleep all night? My toddler isn’t sleeping well, what can I do? Often parents are looking for not only the WHY of sleep but more importantly the HOW can I get my baby or toddler to sleep. Often at the top of the list of suggestions for toddlers and older children is melatonin. This has long been suggested as a natural solution to children and adult sleep disturbances. Natural solutions tend to attract the attention of many parents because we simply want the very best for our children.
I want to be clear – I’m not anti-homeopathy, nor am I anti-pharmaceutical. I feel that health decisions are something that should be carefully considered and only remedied with solutions that have been recommended by a physician or other qualified health professional. If probiotics will heal your gut, awesome! If you need to see a doctor for high cholesterol and they prescribe medication, also great! You won’t find any judgment from me because I value these decisions as personal decisions and what is best for me and my family is very different than what another family may need.
I am a believer that anything you put in your body, and every bit as importantly, your child’s body, should be evaluated for its efficacy and possible side effects, which is why I think the discussion about melatonin for sleep is so important. Like other topics about sleep, there are dozens of blogs, books, and websites that all give a different view on the use of melatonin. I feel as a parent that simplicity is key when making decisions for our children.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin has been touted by many homeopathic experts as a safe, natural way of helping adults and children get to sleep, and in a lot of ways, that is true. Before you take melatonin or give it to your child, there is a lot more to sleep and melatonin that is important to understand.
Melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted from the pineal gland in the brain that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. This hormone helps our body relax and begin to recognize that it’s time to go to sleep. Cortisol is its counterpart, which prompts our body to wake up and begin our day. These hormones work in sync throughout a 24-hour cycle and control periods of wakefulness and sleepiness.
An important point here is that melatonin is not a traditional sleep aid. 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 our body know when to produce melatonin?
Melatonin production is a natural process that our brain and body seamlessly carry out. When it starts to get dark, the brain recognizes the onset of night, and starts releasing melatonin. Likely this process was a lot more helpful for sleep before the creation of the light bulb, smart phone, laptop, or tv.
With our daily life surrounded by so much technology and device use, our eyes are flooded with artificial light (blue light), making it difficult for our brain to determine when night is near, interrupting the natural production of melatonin. This is responsible for insomnia in adults and behavioral and sleep challenges for children.
When is melatonin appropriate for adults?
In some cases, jetlag and shift work being the most common, a melatonin supplement recommended by a medical professional can help reset the body clock, when thrown out of sync by an event that disturbs sleep. Keep in mind that this is a short-term solution and will not treat chronic insomnia or other sleeping disorders. If you are struggling with sleep, my best advice is to evaluate your use of screens that emit blue light (tv, phone, laptop, tablet, kindle, etc.) and turn off these screens a couple of hours before bed. It can also help our body to encourage natural melatonin production by turning down the house lights and practicing a consistent bedtime routine. If we let our body know that it’s time for sleep, likely it will naturally do all of the work for you. If you are suffering from a psychological or physical condition that is interfering with sleep, I encourage you to reach out to your physician.
What is the evidence saying about melatonin use with children?
Newborn babies happen to be an exception to the above facts about melatonin production, as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they’re about 2-months old. Until then, most newborns are flying by the seat of their pants, sleep-wise, as I’m sure you probably already know if you are a parent. After the 2-month mark, babies start to establish a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, which is the standard sleep cycle that we follow throughout our lives.
So now we get to the big question… “Will giving my child melatonin help them sleep through the night?” And the answer is, NO, melatonin is not the magical fix to your child’s sleep challenges. It might temporarily help them GET to sleep at night, but it will not help them stay asleep. This is the 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.”
Melatonin supplementation has been found to be effective for children with certain developmental, behavioral, and emotional disorders including autism and ADHD. If you feel like your child could benefit from melatonin, you should discuss this with a qualified medical professional before giving your child melatonin or any over the counter product. Dosing should also be directed by only a medical professional.
What are the side effects of melatonin for children?
Melatonin is the only hormone that can be purchased over the counter and is not FDA approved. Although a brand may boast “natural” or “organic,” likely these claims have not been invested and it can have serious side effects. There have also been studies that showed early sexual development in animal subjects given melatonin, but the link in human children hasn’t been established.
The secret sauce to getting your child to sleep
If you have a young toddler or a preschool-age child that is struggling, it may be tempting to run to the drug store and find a quick fix. Melatonin may in fact help your child fall asleep at first but it will not help with the middle of the night waking and may have adverse side effects. As a Northern Colorado sleep consultant, I have seen this first-hand more times than I can count.
I encourage you to instead to evaluate their sleep as a whole. How are they getting to sleep? Are they reliant upon you or a “prop” meaning bottle, pacifier, rocking, laying with, or unwanted cosleeping? If so, the first step in addressing your child’s sleeping skills and encouraging independence so they can fall asleep on their own and stay asleep all night. This can certainly be done with a DIY approach but if you’re looking for a fast and effective solution, hiring a Northern Colorado sleep consultant is your best bet.
As your Northern Colorado sleep consultant, I’m here to help your baby or toddler AND you sleep better without needing to use something such as melatonin. I’ll walk you through the specifics of your child’s sleep and help you figure out what will work best for your child so everyone can get the rest they need.
If you have specific questions or want to book a FREE initial consultation, please don’t hesitate to reach out.