Anne Christensen wanted to help her son get a good night’s sleep.
Christensen knew her 17-year-old son, Andrew, who was active in high school band and sports, had been wrestling with not being able to sleep and would wake during the night feeling very anxious.
So the North Royalton mother of two sons, who herself was diagnosed with insomnia at age 16 and has a prescription for sleep medication, began purchasing melatonin supplements for Andrew last summer, following a suggestion from a functional nurse during a routine physical exam.
Christensen did some research on various melatonin brands before settling on a melatonin supplement from her local Costco. She believes school pressures played a role in her son’s sleeping issues and immediately noticed an improvement shortly after Andrew began his new regimen.
Each one of us — babies, toddlers, teens, young adults and beyond — naturally produces melatonin, the hormone responsible for taking us to dreamland. However, for some parents and their children, sleep is a constant household battle in which parents seek medical advice to get relief — and melatonin is a popular option.
Melatonin is front and center in the discussion of recommended sleep aid supplements on just about any parenting blog or social networking group. The supplement, which is not regulated by the FDA, can easily be found on just about any grocery store shelf in tablet, gummy or sublingual (dissolving) form.
But the question remains: Is this popular supplement the best choice?
Our bodies produce melatonin about two hours before we’re ready to fall asleep, says Dr. Carol Rosen, medical director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.
“Its timing is remarkable,” Rosen says. “We all make it, and we typically make it in the right amount.”
Sometimes, though, we want to nurture nature along a bit, and many parents are doing it with melatonin in supplement form.
But before jumping on the supplement bandwagon, experts recommend taking a deep dive into your household’s sleep routine. After all, Rosen says, a regular sleep schedule is important for growing children and developing teens.
“There’s a lot of hype and talk about why a parent might go out and buy melatonin for their child,” Rosen says. “Sleep complaints are very common in children and about a quarter of parents are unhappy about their child’s sleep. Perhaps a better explanation is the lack of a sleep routine.”
Dr. Gregory Omlor, a pediatric pulmonologist affiliated with Akron Children’s Hospital, also recommends behavioral techniques ahead of popping melatonin.
A great bedtime routine, in case you need a quick refresher, includes time together brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, shutting down electronics, reading quietly, reflecting together on the day or saying prayers, followed by lights out, doctors say. School-aged children need about nine hours of sleep to feel their best, whereas toddlers need 11 hours.
Rosen thinks the reliance on supplements is a shortcut to those hour goals.
“In our country, the solution to a lot of problems is taking a pill,” Rosen says “The solution is not melatonin. The majority of kids I see are already on melatonin. One of the biggest issues here is having a regular schedule and being able to fall asleep without electronics. Most people are not missing melatonin, so they don’t need the supplement.”
There is medical evidence, however, that melatonin supplements are effective in special populations, such as those with sleep onset insomnia, autism, ADHD and other neurological disorders.
Melatonin is non-addictive, Omlor says, and can be taken indefinitely. Possible side effects include nausea, dizziness, headaches, and drowsiness the following day. He’s also heard from some that the supplement gives them strange dreams.
The supplement has been linked to delayed onset of puberty in experiments with rodents, but no clear evidence has been shown in humans. Like anything, talking with your child’s doctor is key to understanding your best option.
For parent Kelly Dowling, melatonin supplements were the answer for her 8-year-old son, Aidan. The boy had begun sleepwalking and waking from nightmares shortly after recovering from a virus that gave him a high fever for four days straight. Doctors believed his sleep troubles stemmed from the virus and sleepwalking also appeared to be hereditary, as Aidan’s dad did so, too, as a child. His doctor recommended melatonin gummies. Dowling says she saw the supplement as a short-term fix.
“I believe melatonin can be abused and shouldn’t be given unless it is necessary,” Dowling says. “Sure, don’t we all want a sound night’s sleep? But medicating isn’t the answer. Before I gave Aidan his first night’s gummy, I researched, talked to other parents and had a long conversation with his pediatrician. It isn’t something that will be long-term for our son, but at this point in his life, we feel it is the best option.”
Christensen made her son a partner in solving his trouble with sleeping.
“We’re very open in our family, so I recommend talking with your kids about how they want to handle their sleep issues,” Christensen adds. “With Andrew, my job is to teach and instill in him the skills he needs to be a functioning adult.”
Some parents still grapple with how long to give the supplement to their children, out of fear they will become reliant on it to fall asleep.
“We tried for several years to help our daughter sleep and worked with doctors before trying melatonin,” says parent Janelle Madzia, of North Royalton. “The doctor helped us with the decision, as melatonin is something naturally produced in our bodies, and, for our daughter, she just needed a little more to help her rest easy.”
Still, Madzia says she doesn’t see supplements as an easy fix.
“I would recommend other avenues first before jumping to melatonin,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a quick decision because of wanting a fast solution.”