It seems like everywhere I look, a new article is popping up about melatonin for children. Some articles sing its praises as a natural, sanity-saving remedy. Other articles scare the pants off of us by telling us our child’s hormones will be thrown out of whack and they will become dependent on it like little pint-sized drug addicts.
The truth is, while melatonin is widely accepted and considered safe, there is a lot we just don’t know about it. I did a lot of research before deciding to give it to my daughter, and even still there were things I didn’t find out about it until much later.
Melatonin for children has become a very polarized topic, and I’m not sure that’s the best way to approach it. I truly believe that it’s one of those things that can be a life-saver for some children, and not worth the risk for others. The most important factor is to weigh the pros and cons (and to realize that there are some hefty “cons” involved) and then see where you are at.
That being said, here are the 3 things I think everyone should be aware of before giving their child melatonin:
1) Melatonin is a Hormone
I feel like this is something that gets very misunderstood about melatonin. People hear the term “natural,” and they jump on board without any further information. The fact is, natural doesn’t always mean safe.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a super-crunchy, chemical-eliminating, make-your-own-soap type of person. But guess what? Poison Ivy is natural, folks. Not saying that melatonin or poison ivy have anything in common, just saying that we need to understand what we are using or putting in our bodies.
Fact: If you give your child melatonin, you are giving them hormone therapy. Does that scare you a little?! It certainly scared me! Melatonin is a hormone secreted by your pineal gland in accordance with your circadian rhythms. That is a fancy way of saying that your body releases a surge of it approximately half an hour before you go to bed to help you fall asleep.
The melatonin you buy at the store has been synthesized in a lab. Just like when your body naturally releases melatonin, there is a chemical reaction that affects other hormones in your body. The fear with this is that you will be disrupting the hormones in your child’s body and there is some evidence that this could cause hormone-related issues down the road.
On the flip side of the coin, there are some children (particularly with neurological disorders like autism or Sensory Processing Disorder) whose bodies do not produce enough melatonin on their own. Children who are not actually getting enough sleep face a host of other health problems, not to mention the havoc that sleepless nights can wreck on a whole family. In these instances, the short and long-term benefits of sleep can easily outweigh the potential for long-term hormone disruption.
2) Children Can Become Dependent on It
Okay, this is kind of a controversial statement to make, so let me clarify. There is currently no proof that you can become dependent on melatonin, and it is widely regarded as non-addictive.
However, there are many instances where, for whatever reason, a child cannot fall asleep without it once they have started taking it. This has been our personal experience with melatonin. I give it to my daughter for nap time, because she has never been able to take naps due to a deficiency in her melatonin production.
Pre-melatonin, she would go weeks without napping, and when she did nap, it would be a light sleep that was not very restful. I would say the odds of her taking a nap on any given day were 1 in 5. With melatonin, she sleeps the appropriate amount of time, and wakes up much happier, because she is well rested. However, if I don’t give her melatonin, the odds of her napping are now are about 1 in 15.
Certainly, there is always the possibility of psychological addiction. Children are especially sensitive to this type of dependence. They see mommy giving them a pill every night to go to sleep, so they believe they must have it to sleep.
We have been very careful to avoid letting our daughter know that she is taking medicine, and we certainly don’t tell her it will help her sleep. She just thinks she is getting a little “treat” at the end of her lunch, and we also don’t have issues with her asking for it at other times of the day.
Again, there isn’t medical proof that melatonin is addictive, yet based on personal experience and the experience of others, there seems to be some evidence that it might cause dependency if taken for an extended period of time.
3) Melatonin is Not a Substitute for Healthy Sleeping Habits
I hate to be a bubble-popper, I really do, but melatonin is not always going to be the answer to your child’s sleeping issues. For one, melatonin only helps you fall asleep, it doesn’t help you stay asleep. If your child struggles to stay asleep–for whatever reason–melatonin can’t help with that.
If your child isn’t staying in bed for behavioral reasons (like the fact that they are a toddler and toddlers make us want to pull our hair out when they won’t stay in bed!!) melatonin could be a dangerous road to travel down. It might be the equivalent of putting a band-aid over something that needs stitches. Even if it fixes the problem short-term, it’s going to do a pretty crummy job of it.
Can I suggest a book that, at the risk of overstating things, may just save your life? It’s called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, 4th Edition: A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night’s Sleep. When my daughter was only just a few months old and having sleep issues like you wouldn’t believe, a family member recommended this to me and I devoured it.
This book is just full of helpful information. No matter where you are, I suggest reading this before giving your child melatonin. It will teach you step-by-step how to build a strong bedtime routine and it has plenty of age-specific advice.
Working through this book answered several of my questions and helped me realize that there was something more going on with my child’s sleep than a bedtime routine and various strategies could overcome. If you make it through this book and still don’t have a child that sleeps, melatonin might just be the answer for you.
Okay, I know I just gave you all a lot of information to digest! So, who is the best person to decide whether or not you should give melatonin to your child?
A parent who has done research, is informed, and has talked it over with their pediatrician, is the absolute best person to decide. If this post taught you a bunch of scary new things that you didn’t know about melatonin, maybe take a little bit longer to process and research before pulling the trigger.
If you read it and said, “Yes, Megan, I know all of this, but I still don’t think I have any other choice!” then guess what? You need to trust your gut. You know your child and you know what works and what doesn’t. Compared to the various other scary-dangerous sleep drug alternatives, melatonin is a pretty “safe” bet.
If anyone is curious, the type of melatonin we get and have been very happy with is Zarbee’s Naturals Children’s Sleep, 30 count. Our daughter loves the purple flavor and they are easy enough to break in half, if you’d like to start your child with a super-small dose! That is what we do and have found it is perfect for her.
So I’m curious, what do you guys think? Any fellow melatonin users that want to weigh in?
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