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Melatonin pills for kids: A safe sleep solution?

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Between 24/7 access to technology, after-school activities and hours of homework, more and more kids are having trouble falling asleep at night.  

In fact, the National Sleep Foundation’s 2014 Sleep in America poll, which is being released on Monday, reveals that kids are falling short on the amount of time they should be sleeping each night.

And for some parents who are desperate for a natural way to get their kids to go to sleep, popping one melatonin pill each night has been the answer, but it is safe?

What is melatonin?
Known as the “hormone of darkness,” melatonin is produced in the brain as the sun goes down, signaling that bedtime is coming within a few hours, according to Dr. Shelby Harris, a sleep psychologist and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

Many parents, however, falsely believe that the pills will work in the same way the brain does.

“They think of melatonin like an over-the-counter, natural remedy that does the same thing as Ambien and it doesn’t,” Harris said.

Plus, many parents are using melatonin incorrectly—either by giving their kids too much or by using it too close to bedtime.

Harris knows of a lot of pediatricians who are prescribing the over-the-counter medicine when parents ask for a natural and safe solution.

“It can be good for some kids, but it shouldn’t be the first-line effort that you’re doing,” she said.

What prevents good sleep?
Studies have proven that use of melatonin can be effective for children with autism, true insomnia and for teens with circadian rhythm problems or “night owl syndrome.”

However, there are a very small percentage of children who suffer from circadian rhythm problems or insomnia, Dr. Robert Oexman, Director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Mebane, N.C., said.

Before turning to melatonin pills, which should only be used for two to four weeks, getting to the root cause of what’s inhibiting sleep is key, Oexman said.

Experts agree many of the reasons why kids aren’t getting enough sleep start at home, with after-school activities that leave kids up late doing their homework and overuse of technology before bedtime.

“Blue light [from device screens] makes our brains think it’s daytime and makes the melatonin go away,” Harris said.

According to a recent study in the journal Sleep Medicine, children who spent time on social media before bedtime slept one hour less than those who rarely logged on.

Another reason kids aren’t getting enough sleep is because parents haven’t made sleep a priority for themselves or their families, Oexman believes.

“Parents have given up on committing time to sleep,” he said.

Melatonin may not be safe for kids.
The National Institutes of Health warns that melatonin pills shouldn’t be used by kids because they may be unsafe and impact their development.

As with any other over-the-counter supplement, even if it’s marketed as natural, there are potential side effects. The most common are daytime sleepiness, dizziness and headaches.  

Melatonin pills are categorized as a dietary or food supplement, which means the FDA does not oversee them and the doses can vary between brands.   

What’s more, some brands add valerian root or fillers to pills. Parents need to read the labels carefully to know what’s in the bottle.

“Just because it’s over-the-counter, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe for you,” Harris said.

What you can do.
If your child is having trouble falling asleep at night, here are some solutions:

Make sleep a priority.
Children’s sleep needs vary by age and catching up on the weekends doesn’t count. Think about cutting down on after-school activities and having your kids do their homework right after school—whatever you have to do to make sure they sleep enough.

Be consistent.
Bedtime should be the same time every night because it sets your child’s body clock. Wind down an hour before and make sure kids have a routine: bath, books, lights out.  

Put the electronics away.
Take the iPad, cell phone and TV out of your kid’s bedroom. A white noise machine– not music— is ok.

Limit technology.
Make it a family rule that all electronics use stops at a certain hour, at least an hour before bedtime.

See a doctor.
If your child is still having problems falling asleep, talk to his pediatrician or see a sleep specialist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, which is the best treatment. If melatonin is prescribed, the sleep specialist will advise you how to use it.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.