I recently visited a doctor’s office to speak to a group of nurses and pediatricians about pediatric sleep. Once I was finished sharing some sleep tips for them to share with their patients, I asked what they are currently recommending to their patients who are having trouble sleeping at night, throughout the night, and/or naps. Many of them said they suggest giving children melatonin to solve their sleep issues or refer them child for a sleep study.
I was surprised to hear their first line of defense is to give children something to put into their body to help them sleep better, before even addressing sleep hygiene. Most sleep issues are not medically related. Granted, some are, but the majority of issues are behavioral, prop dependent issues.
Melatonin has been touted by a lot of homeopathic experts as a safe, natural way of helping people get to sleep, and in a lot of ways, that is actually true, but there’s a whole lot more to understand about it before you take it yourself or give it to your child.
So what is melatonin, exactly? Well, melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted from the pineal gland that helps to settle your body and mind down when it’s time to sleep. How exactly it does that is a very complicated process and involves more biology, so in the simplest terms, melatonin is your brain’s way of drawing the curtains for the night. Cortisol is its counterpart, which opens them back up, and the two together make up a large part of what we call our “body clock”. 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 start producing melatonin? This is a naturally occurring process. When it starts to get dark, the body recognizes the onset of night, and gets the melatonin pumps up and running. This worked well before the light bulb was invented. We are currently flooded with so much artificial light, it can be difficult for our brains to determine when night is actually coming and it can interfere with our melatonin production. Newborns are an exception, as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they are about two months old. Once they get past the two month mark, they start to establish a 24-hour light-dark sleep cycle, which is the standard sleep cycle that we follow as adults.
In some cases, jet-lag and shift work being the biggest two, a melatonin supplement can help reset our body clocks if they’ve been thrown out of whack, but it’s not a solution to sleep issues.
This is the general consensus of sleep specialist, 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.” We do not know enough about melatonin and its long term effects. Doctors are just prescribing melatonin, but it is not a long term solution. It even states this on the bottle.
Giving your child melatonin will not help them sleep through the night. It may help them get to sleep, but it will not help them stay asleep. Melatonin is a hormone and 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.
Even in cases where the effects are psychological, and for some people, melatonin does indeed get them to sleep quicker and help them sleep through the night. If it’s just a placebo effect for some of them, then no big deal. They’re getting the sleep they need and that’s vitally important in its own right. But when it comes to young kids, I feel that it’s essential for us as parents to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.
Kids need a lot of sleep. There is so much mental and physical growth that occurs while children are sleeping. All they need from us is a little guidance and a determination to step out of the way sometimes so they can develop the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep on their own. You can check out some of my other blog posts for tips on how to teach independent sleep skills, but giving them any kind of sleep aid is definitely not the answer, whether it’s melatonin or Benadryl. Just like learning any other skill, it takes practice and time. There’s no supplement that can teach you how to play an instrument, teach you long division, or sharpen your golf game. Sleep is, in essence, exactly the same thing. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, and once it is, it comes easily and naturally, so before you reach for the pills, try establishing a predictable, consistent bedtime routine, shutting down the TVs and tablets a couple of hours before bed, and encouraging your child to fall asleep without feeding, rocking, or other forms of outside help. I promise you, the results will be better than anything you’ll get from a pill, and they’ll last them a lifetime.
Before considering melatonin, schedule a free evaluation call with me: https://SleepytimeConsultant.17hats.com/p#/scheduling/hhscvvnwrzthfptbpfrzdrfpffspztww