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What parents should consider before giving children melatonin
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Parents struggling to help their children get some much-needed sleep are more frequently turning to melatonin. - photo by Payton Davis
Parents struggling to help their children get some much-needed sleep are more frequently turning to melatonin.

And with no research on melatonin tablets and their potential long-term effects on children's health, it's difficult to gauge whether that's a good choice or not, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Sales of the supplement have jumped from $62 million in 2003 to $378 million in 2014, and while the statistics aren't broken up by children or adults, the fact many melatonin products feature "fruity flavors and chewable tablets" show its appeal to parents concerned over their kids' sleep struggles, U.S. News & World Report's piece indicated.

CTV News reported on a survey of nearly 350 parents who took their kids to a pediatric emergency department. The survey found "80 percent of kids with underlying medical conditions and 70 percent without pre-existing conditions had trouble sleeping."

Of the children who didn't sleep enough, 27 percent received over-the-counter medication to help, with 6 percent being prescribed medication. According to CTV News, melatonin constituted 40 percent of over-the-counter sleep aids used by children.

What's the takeaway?

If children can't sleep well, their parents will likely try melatonin.

"It's obviously anecdotal, but I would say that it's almost rare for a family to come in for a sleep clinic evaluation and have not tried melatonin for their children with insomnia," Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, told U.S. News & World Report. "I think word has gotten out, both to parents and primary care providers, that melatonin is potentially a quick fix for a child who has difficulty falling asleep."

But according to The Huffington Post, it's a quick but also little-studied substance.

Currently, there's no complete research in regards to if melatonin could affect puberty or pose any other long-term issues. Owens told U.S. News & World Report all experts know now is "melatonin actually suppresses some hormones that regulate puberty" possibly altering normal child development.

Clinical Advisor reported melatonin's use shouldn't be taken lightly. David J. Kennaway, from the University of Adelaide in Australia, said "prescription of melatonin to any child whether severely physically or neurologically disabled or developing normally" must come after parents understand initial research in animal models, which showed effects on reproductive organs.

Parents also need to realize the "lack of appropriate studies conducted in children" poses risks, Kennaway said.

Wendy Sue Swanson wrote for The Huffington Post that negative effects or not, relying on substances like melatonin when risk-free alternatives exist isn't usually necessary.

Swanson likened melatonin to other "magic" sleep measures like the children's book "The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep" that I reported on in August.

According to The Guardian, Swedish psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin authored the book, with its front page stating, "I can make anyone fall asleep."

Parents debated the book's effectiveness at doing just that, and Swanson wrote whether a sleep-inducing story or melatonin, these quick fixes rarely trump "sleep hygiene."

"However inconvenient, I think sleep hygiene (routine bedtime, no screens before bed, bed used only for sleeping) and consistency with what we do as parents may be the only magic wand to wave for sleep throughout childhood," Swanson wrote.

The measures Swanson mentioned, compounded with learning how sleep issues occur, will help families most, Craig Canapari, director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital, told U.S. News & World Report.

"Experts say some parents and even physicians are too quick to push otherwise healthy kids to pop pills, rather than getting to the root of sleep problems, which could be medical or behavioral," according to U.S. News & World Report.