What to know about children and melatonin


November 22, 2016

Melatonin can help reduce interrupted sleep. Check with a doctor before use, especially in children.


You may not fondly recall all those sleepless nights with your baby, but you certainly don’t want to see your growing-up baby suffer the sleepless nights herself.

For a variety of reasons, however — children have different circadian rhythms, school start times aren’t necessarily optimized for the way children need rest, kids get too much stimulating screen time — childhood sleep disorders are growing.

But there may be a natural solution: melatonin. Beth Malow, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Center, says melatonin is a substance our bodies naturally produce anyway, so giving your child a melatonin supplement, in consultation with your pediatrician, to help him sleep can be a better alternative to meds that cause grogginess the next day.

Having done a lot of work with children with autism, Malow often recommends melatonin for this group of patients.

“My research area is autism and sleep,” Malow says. “I’ve used it a lot on kids with autism because they have problems shutting their brains down at night, so to speak, and melatonin really helps. I really feel it’s a very safe medicine.”


How much sleep do kids need?

Children have different sleep needs as they grow. Generally, toddlers require 11-14 hours of sleep a day. Pre-schoolers might need slightly less, with 11-13 hours recommended, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Children aged 6-13 should be sleeping 9-11 hours, and this is the age at which sleep problems can arise due to increased exposure to screen time on TV, online and on their phones. It can lead to problems falling asleep, nightmares, bedtime resistance and sleep disruption, especially if they’re exposed to electronic screens and bright light close to bedtime, the National Sleep Foundation notes.

Sleep problems can lead to behavioral issues and other problems as well. And as teenagers, The National Sleep Foundation notes, circadian rhythms shift to later sleeping and waking times. Teens still require, on average, 8-10 hours of sleep a night, but one recent study showed only 15% of teenagers reported getting at least 8.5 hours of sleep on school nights.

The issue with teenagers and sleeplessness can lead to serious problems like lower performance in school, drowsiness behind the wheel and moodiness. Malow herself has gotten involved in a local movement in Williamson County schools to change to later start times for high schools to help combat this problem. Metro Nashville schools are currently debating later start times as well.


More about melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone naturally secreted by the brain’s pineal gland, and it helps control your body’s natural sleep cycles. When it’s working properly, melatonin levels rise overnight and drop again in the early morning hours. Exposure to natural light can affect how your body produces melatonin.

Although melatonin can be purchased over the counter without a prescription, Malow cautions that you should consult a doctor first, particularly when dealing with children.

“The only caveats are if your child isn’t sleeping well or you’re not sleeping well, it’s a good idea to talk to a sleep physician first. You don’t want to mask a more serious problem like sleep apnea where you’re waking up multiple times a night because you’re not breathing.”

It’s also important to pick a reputable brand when choosing a melatonin supplement. Read the label and make sure the supplement doesn’t include other ingredients like Benadryl. Malow recommends Natrol, and says your doctor can also provide recommendations.

If you have lingering sleep issues, talk with your healthcare provider about finding a sleep disorder program. Vanderbilt’s Sleep Disorders Center can help.

Beth Ann Malow, M.D., is Burry Chair in Cognitive Childhood Development, and professor of neurology and pediatrics in the Sleep Disorders Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Her research focuses on the interrelationship of sleep and neurologic disease.