“Unless a child has a diagnosed condition such as autism that has been scientifically proven to be helped by melatonin, there is no medical rationale for a child to be given it”, says Dr. Neil Stanley, the former director of sleep research at the University of Surrey and an independent sleep expert.
According to Stanley: “Most pediatricians know little about sleep or melatonin. For non-autistic children it is a fashionable treatment for parents wanting ‘perfect’ children”. Dr. Stanley is extremely concerned by the increasing rates of children aged 14 and under being admitted to the hospital for sleep disorders in the past 10 years.
Melatonin, a hormone the body produces naturally as the body prepares for sleep, is a popular supplement for adults.
Production of melatonin is triggered by a decrease in daylight, and melatonin production is proven to be disrupted by the backlit screens on our TVs, cell phones, computers, etc…
Some countries, like the United States, allow sales of melatonin as an over-the-counter supplement. Due to the potential for abuse, the UK has made melatonin a prescription-only medication.
Melatonin prescriptions and supplementation in adults, particularly in the over-55 age group, is a less-addictive treatment than prescription sleep aids. However, even adults are encouraged to use it for a short period of time.
These studies do not mean that there isn’t a time or a place for melatonin usage in children. According to Vicki Dawson, the founder of the Children’s Sleep Charity, “We work closely with pediatricians and there are times when we will say we think it is helpful, but only for short periods of time. My concern is some children are on it as a long-term solution”.
In animal studies, long-term use of melatonin on younger subjects has detrimental effects on puberty-related hormones -- not to mention potentially disrupting the natural melatonin production cycle.
There are extremely effective, well-documented behavioral programming bedtime routines proven to be safer and more effective than melatonin. Parents need to take the time and, when necessary, receive appropriate assistance in establishing these routines before turning to medication. The exception is children with certain developmental problems such as autism, who are more likely to produce insufficient levels of melatonin.