How does melatonin affect children's sleep?

March 6, 2018

On March 6, 2018, three teachers at a suburban Chicago-area daycare were charged with endangering the life or health of a child for allegedly giving two-year old children melatonin supplement gummies without parental consent.  The teachers gave the children the gummies, which were purchased over-the-counter, prior to naptime and told police that they didn’t know that giving the children the supplement was wrong.  Although none of the children in this case became ill due to the supplement, melatonin can have a significant effect on an individual’s sleep cycle and can also cause drowsiness, nausea and other side effects and can cause issues for individuals with immune disorders.

Melatonin is a natural hormone that plays a role in an individual’s sleep cycle.  Research suggests that melatonin supplements may be helpful in treating some sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase or insomnia, and generally helps an individual to fall asleep faster. While melatonin supplements are generally thought to be safe for short-term use, individuals should consult a physician before starting any kind of supplement regimen.  In many countries, melatonin must be prescribed by a physician, but in the United States it is available over the counter.

A recent study found that exposing preschool aged children (3 to 5 years old) to bright light prior to bedtime suppressed melatonin production up to 50 minutes after the light exposure; these results imply that bright light prior to bedtime inhibits the child’s melatonin production, thus making it more difficult for the child to fall asleep following the exposure.  Previous studies have shown that the effects of evening light on an individual decrease as age increases so exposure to bright light prior to bedtime has a more significant on children than adults.  To encourage good sleep hygiene in children, devices that emit bright light and other sources of bright light should be limited to the child prior to bedtime. 

If your child has trouble sleeping, there are strategies that can be applied:
  • Stop usage of electronics or exposure to bright light an hour prior to bedtime
  • Avoid naps during the day
  • Establish a set bedtime and pre-bedtime routine
  • Limit caffeine and exercise later in the day; eat dinner at least two hours prior to bedtime
  • Create a good sleep environment for your child
  • Speak to your child’s physician about your concerns
Only limited research has been conducted into the effectiveness of melatonin as a sleep aid in children who do not have a sleep disorder; however, these studies have shown that short-term the use of melatonin in children has not shown any side effects of melatonin use but research into its long-term use is still needed.  Prior to giving your child melatonin supplements, you should speak to your child’s physician.