A few days ago I heard a commercial on the radio advertising gummy sleeping pills for kids. The gummies were lauded as containing a mix of soothing herbs and a “safe” dose of melatonin.
There is so much wrong with that ad, I don’t know where to start!
I actually posted about this topic several years ago, so I decided it was time to update the post. Perhaps the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had changed its collective mind and now thought giving children as young as 4 melatonin was a good idea.
The AAP still recommends NOT giving children under the age of 18 melatonin, at least not without consulting with the child’s pediatrician first.
They recommend helping children develop good sleep habits, such as a consistent bedtime, quiet bedtime rituals (i.e. no video games or other stimulating activities), a dark and cool bedroom, etc.
The “sleep supplement”
I am a chronically poor sleeper, but I’ve never tried melatonin, the sleep supplement. I have many friends that swear by it, however.
It bothered me that I could never get a straight answer from any source about the therapeutic dosage—1 mg, 3 mg, 5 mg, 10 mg? Should it only be taken as needed, or is melatonin safe to take every night, forever?
Related post: Melatonin dosage—what’s the right amount?
As a supplement (it’s actually a hormone), melatonin falls under the extremely loose guidelines of the Dietary Supplement Health And Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. It is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so taking melatonin is in the category of “Use at your own risk.”
Now in cherry flavor! And gummies!
That’s fine for adults, I suppose. But in 2013 the Wall Street Journal published an article about the latest trend to market melatonin as a sleep aid for children. Chewable, low-dose melatonin tablets are now available “to prepare your child for academic success.”
Like adults, kids need adequate sleep to perform well, and like adults they suffer from sleep disturbances at different times in their young lives. Studies show a connection between poor grades and poor sleep.
Well, the sales pitch has been working. In 2007, sales of melatonin totaled $90 million; by 2012 sales soared to $260 million and they are still rising.
The article’s author, also a mom, gave melatonin (under a pediatrician’s guidance) to her kindergarten-aged son. But when her son began to ask for the “magic pill” to help him sleep, she wisely stopped giving it to him.
Is melatonin safe enough for children?
Although melatonin has been used in children and appears to have a good safety record, as one pediatrician told her, “Giving your healthy child a pill to fall asleep is sending him the wrong message—that he needs a pill to do what should come naturally.”
Furthermore, there is a “lack of long-term clinical studies to see how the hormone supplement interacts with other hormones in the body, potentially affecting fertility or sexual development.”
A pharmacist writing on the Science-Based Medicine blog also read the WSJ article and added these concerns about melatonin
- Melatonin is not consistently absorbed, so correct dosing is difficult.
- There is very little data on the safety and effectiveness of melatonin use in children.
- Studies on melatonin use in adults show little to no benefit.
- There is little data on the long-term effects of melatonin use in adults, and no data on children.
Overall, he advises caution using melatonin in children. “Like other supplements, it’s a victim of a weak regulatory structure. In Canada and the United States, there’s little conclusive evidence to guide product selection and dosing. Buyer beware.”
In 2017 Consumer Reports tested a variety of melatonin supplements, including those marketed for children, and found that the amount of melatonin could vary dramatically. Some products had almost 500% more melatonin than stated on the label!
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Sleep problems in children are real, but giving them a supplement disguised as candy is not the best course of treatment.
If sleep problems persist and are affecting a child’s school and social activities, seek professional help rather than relying on supplements alone.
This post has been updated since its original publication in 2013.