Should You Give Your Baby Melatonin to Sleep?

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The team members here at the Baby Sleep Site® work hard to stay on top of the latest news and trends related to sleep – particularly baby and toddler sleep. It’s important to us that we’re always using current research, recommendations, and best practices in our work with families.

So when one of our sleep consultants passed a local news story about an emerging sleep trend along to the rest of us, we were eager to read it! Imagine our surprise, though, when we read the news headline: Parents Turn to ‘Sleeping Pills’ for Kids.

Parents Are Giving ‘Sleeping Pills’ To Their Babies and Toddlers

Turns out the ‘sleeping pills’ referred to in the story aren’t actual sleeping pills. The story is really about parents who give their young children melatonin at night, in an effort to help their babies and toddlers sleep.

For many families, melatonin makes a huge difference in their children’s sleep. That was true for Mindie Barnett, a mom who was interviewed for this news story. As she explained, it used to take her toddler up to 2 hours to fall asleep at bedtime; now, with the help of the melatonin drops, it takes just 10 minutes.

Big improvement, right? And all thanks to a natural, doctor-prescribed sleep aid. But Barnett isn’t alone; increasing numbers of parents are turning to melatonin to “cure” their children’s sleep problems. As Dr. Sanjeev Kothare, who was also interviewed for the story, points out,

“Families have heard from others, they’ve seen on the Internet, they’ve seen it on TV, that melatonin may be a useful product and an easy fix,” said Dr. Sanjeev Kothare of NYU Langone Medical Center.

But Is Melatonin Safe to Use as a Sleep Aid?

Does all of this sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. Yes, melatonin is effective in helping children fall asleep quickly, but is it safe for babies’ and toddlers’ growing little bodies? What about the long-term effects?

That’s where things get a bit alarming. There’s a lack of clinical research to indicate whether or not long-term use of melatonin is safe. However, since melatonin itself is a hormone, and since it regulates other systems in the body (particularly systems that control puberty-related changes), it seems safe to assume that giving melatonin to a child on a regular basis, over months or even years, would have some effect.

What’s more, many pediatricians fear that if children take melatonin supplements long-term, they may become dependent on them to fall asleep (psychologically dependent, and perhaps even physically dependent). In other words, kids may get “hooked” on melatonin, and need it in order to fall asleep.

While many doctors agree that melatonin can be excellent for the small percentage of children who suffer from serious sleep disorders (especially disorders that are caused by reduced melatonin levels), they quickly point out that healthy children really don’t need additional melatonin.

Why Are Parents Giving Melatonin to Healthy Children?

So why are parents giving healthy kids this supplement? Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist, shared his opinion in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

“Parents are using melatonin because they are stressed out,” said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist who knows parents that have given melatonin to their children for years at a stretch. “They come home late, eat dinner late, and they think they can just flick an on-off switch for their children to get to sleep.”

This is understandable, right? And I would add another reason to Dr. Breus’s: even those parents who do everything right (use a predictable daily schedule, have a strong bedtime routine, work to break sleep associations, etc.) sometimes really struggle with getting their babies to sleep well, and with getting their toddlers to go to bed at night. Sometimes, parents work and work at improving sleep, and it’s still hard. No wonder, then, that parents may feel tempted to turn to a “quick fix” like melatonin supplements.

Nicole’s Note:
“I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened that someone comes to me with a toddler sleep ‘problem’ which is not a problem at all. If your 2 1/2 year old is taking two hours to fall asleep, for example, many people don’t realize that many 2 1/2 year olds can now stay awake sometimes 6 hours. If she is napping 1-3pm, you’re looking at a possible 9pm bedtime, not 7pm! In addition, I have families ask me if melatonin will help with night-wakings and keep in mind it mostly helps with falling asleep initially at night, not for later in the night. It is not wise to be ‘re-dosing’ melatonin throughout the night.”

Skip Melatonin Supplements, and Teach Your Child to Sleep

As more and more parents turn to melatonin to help “cure” their children’s sleep problems, healthcare professionals are pushing back and urging parents not to use these “magic sleeping pills” as a cure-all.

We think this is wise advice. We believe that, with time and plenty of support and help, every baby and toddler can learn to sleep through the night, and to take long and restful naps. A small percentage of children may have a medical need for melatonin supplements, but the vast majority do not. For those children, using melatonin to “fix” their sleep problems is not only ineffective, it’s potentially dangerous.

Instead, we urge parents to take the time, and to do the work, to truly solve their children’s sleep problems. This often takes a comprehensive approach – one which takes the whole child into account. One of our sleep consultants, Miriam, puts it this way:

There are many gentle sleep training techniques that can bring a child’s body into harmony, resulting in healthy sleep. We must stop putting a band-aid on a problem, (in this case, a potentially dangerous band-aid). Instead, we need to address the entire child – nutrition, routine, relationships, medical history, family philosophy, temperament, and personal development. This is what we do at the Baby Sleep Site®, and it’s why I’m proud to serve clients here.

In our opinion, the bottom line is this: no supplement is a substitute for healthy sleeping habits.

Your turn, parents – what do you think about this trend? Would you give your baby or toddler ‘sleeping pills’ to improve sleep? We’re interested in hearing our readers’ opinions on this one!

Melatonin won’t miraculously ‘cure’ your baby’s sleep issues. But don’t worry; we have the resources you ned to make meaningful, long-lasting changes to your baby or toddler’s sleep! Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. Or, join our Members Area packed with exclusive content and resources: e-Books, assessments, detailed case studies, expert advice, peer support, and teleseminars. It actually costs less to join than buying products separately! For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.


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Comments

  1. Christi says

    This is a very interesting article and it got me wondering about chamomile tea–is it in the same category? My husband and I just finish phase one of sleep training with our customized sleep plan (thanks Miriam!), and although our little guy is sleeping A LOT better than he was before sleep training, he is still waking in the night. Since we are a “dream feed” family so our little guy gives us his longest stretch of sleep while I am sleeping, I recently started having my husband give our son a bottle with pumped breast milk and/or formula for the dream feed with one ounce of chamomile tea mixed into it. I think my son is starting to teethe and heard that chamomile can help. Since i can’t really be sure if he is teething or not, since I can’t feel anything yet, I thought that this was a better option than dosing him with Mortin each night before bed. He does seem to sleep a little longer, not a lot longer, but maybe 30 minutes to an hour longer than without it. Do you think this is in a similar category as the melatonin?

  2. saima says

    hello all mothers out there. i had serious issues with my baby son in last months. he couldnt sleep and sleep was poor. but i read about the techniques and trainings on web and i applied to him. thanks to the internet, my baby who is now 8 months old is sleeping well and without any pills or syrup. yes i also get frustrated but your priority is health of your baby. they just need love and assurance that you are there. give your baby some time to adapt himself..then you dont know..wonders can happen..good luck to parents..:-)

  3. Natalie says

    I’ve give my 2 year old less than .25mg of melatonin when he is overtired. That’s the only time.
    I think it can be used very sparingly. Just an opinion.

  4. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Christi — so glad your consultation is going well, and that your little one’s sleep is improving so much! I checked with both Miriam and Nicole on your question. Miriam recommends that you speak to your baby’s doctor about this. She says that, since this is an herbal additive, it could *technically* be considered a medicine. Nicole also points out that, in general, we don’t recommend offering anything but breast milk or formula for the first year (with the exception of a small amount of water, once your baby is 10 months or older.)

    Hope this helps, Christi! Thanks so much for commenting, and best of luck as you continue to work with your baby on sleep! :)

    @ saima — so glad you’ve been able to get your little one sleeping well! Thanks for commenting.

    @ Natalie — thanks for sharing a bit about your experience with melatonin! We were hoping that moms and dads who have some personal experience with this would chime in; thanks for doing that. :)

  5. Kristina says

    My 15 month old son was a great sleeper and slept a solid 11-12 hours at night from the age of 12 weeks through to 10 months old. From 10 months he started taking longer and longer to fall asleep and he was very restless all night. At about 12 months he started having 2-3 night wakings and wasn’t able to resettle himself. This got slowly worse even though we had kept to our bedtime routines that had always worked in the past. At 13 months old we took him to a Pediatrician who tested for colic, allergies and then low melatonin. It turned out for us that due to the start of winter our sons body wasn’t producing melatonin properly to help him fall asleep. The first night we tried giving him melatonin he slept just like he had before the start of winter. Our pediatrician now has us slowly reducing his dose so he is not using it for more than 6-8 weeks. We currently haven’t had any problems on the nights where he has no melatonin at all so are happy that he will not be using it long term. We are very pleased to have found out what had been the problem for our previously good sleeper!

  6. Dimity Morris says

    My grandson is 28mnths and takes 2mg of Melatonineach night 30mins before bed, he has been on this dose since May. Jerome has Angelman Syndrome which is a genetic disorder, causing a deletion within his chromosome 15. One of his symptoms is sleep disorder as he doesn’t produce Melatonin. Sure we tried lemon balm tea and many other natural and sleep training before we agreed with his doctor and started the Melatonin. It helps him go to sleep and he gets about 5 hours, before was only 1-2 hours .

  7. Svetlana says

    I heard that using chamomile long term can have an opposite effect. It does not soothe, but makes one aggressive and irritable (I think it was The Complete Homeopathy Book by Myranda Castro).

  8. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Kristina – sounds like you went about this very wisely — trying everything you could at home, then taking him to a healthcare provider for assessment. It also sounds like you’re using the melatonin supplements carefully (and under the supervision of a doctor), which is excellent! Glad to hear this has been a good short-term solution for you! :)

    Thanks for commenting, Katrina, and for sharing a bit about your experience.

    @ Dimity Morris – Sounds like Jerome is in the small percentage of children who truly need melatonin supplements in order to sleep, since their bodies don’t produce enough of it naturally. So glad you were able to get a diagnosis for Jerome, and that you’ve found a solution that provides better sleep!

    Thanks for commenting, Dimity! :)

    @ Svetlana – Thanks for making this point! I haven’t read that book, and my quick Google search didn’t turn up any research about chamomile producing negative side effects when used long-term. But this may be good info for parents who use chamomile as a sleep aid for themselves, or for their children.

    Thanks for sharing this, Svetlana!

  9. Anna H says

    What do you think about melatonin for jet lag? Several friends and family members including several nurses and NPs recommended it to us after our last transatlantic trip (7 hour time difference) resulted in weeks and weeks of terrible sleep (and me complaining on Facebook). Morning wake up and naps were OK, bedtime almost normal, a little late, but midnight wakeups with 2-3 hours of toddler party time. Ideally it would just be a short term fix until we got back on schedule, but it’s not something I’ve had the courage or desire to try yet. We travel to visit our parents once or twice a year. Anybody have positive or negative experience there?

  10. Jenny says

    Our 3 1/2 year old son is easily over-stimulated and thrown-off by any change to his schedule. We give .25 mg of melatonin a half hour before bed when he is overtired or over-stimulated at bedtime, or after a time change to get his system on track. We usually only need it for one night, never for more than a few and generally only, say, once a month. It helps us keep him from plummeting into a bad run of getting more and more-over-tired when something throws him off (babysitting excitement, travel, etc.). I see nothing wrong with using it sparingly; it saves his body the stress of getting very off-track and was recommended by our naturopath.

  11. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Anna H – melatonin might be a good solution (since it’s best used as a short-term solution, and since jet-lag is a short-term problem). I’d definitely advise checking with your baby’s doctor first, though, just to be sure melatonin would jive with your little one’s medical history, and wouldn’t cause any problems.

    Thanks for making this point, Anna! :)

    @ Jenny – I think the key word in your comment is ‘sparingly'; sounds like you’re using melatonin for specific instances when sleep is thrown off, and not as a general cure-all for chronic sleep issues. Provided your son’s healthcare provider thinks this is a safe approach, then there’s likely nothing wrong at all with using melatonin for extra help in specific cases. I think it’s when parents use melatonin every night, for months (or years) on end, that problems arise. In those cases, there are likely other factors in play that are causing sleep disturbances.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion with us, Jenny, and for letting us know about your experiences using melatonin! :)

  12. says

    The mother of my girlfriend’s 1 1/2 yr. old grandson has been reported by a reliable source to be crushing up 3-5mg melatonin pills and mixing it with his drink bottle at night, not to HELP him sleep, but to MAKE him sleep. She has 50/50 custody of the 1 1/2 yr. old with my girlfriend’s son, who is not the biological father, but is the presumed father as awarded by the court. The mother and father alternate weeks with the child. She gives him melatonin pills while he is with her, then when the father has him, he can’t get the baby to sleep at night. The father does not know of the pills yet. The mother is extremely lazy and spends more time on Facebook than she does with her own kids, a 1 1/2 yr. old and a 2 1/2 yr. old. Is this reason enough to contact child services and have them investigate the situation?

  13. Emily DeJeu says

    @ David — I can’t make specific recommendations about when it’s time to contact child service authorities, but I do feel confident in saying that 3-5 mg of melatonin is likely too much for an 18 month old child. This is the amount you’d give to an older child – a tween or teen, for instance. If you look through the comments here, and through other articles on melatonin for children, you’ll see that most parents who use it give their little ones less than 1 mg, and they do that infrequently. So yes, this is too high a dose, and it really shouldn’t be given regularly, unless the child’s healthcare provider has prescribed it for an underlying condition.

    Hope this information helps. And sorry about your situation; sounds like it’s less than ideal for everyone involved. :( Best of luck to you, and thanks for reaching out!

  14. says

    Hi, it’s Angela, parenting journalist and blogger at sciencemommmy.weebly.com. I can add a couple of points since I researched this a while back ; )Some sources caution against using more than 1mg for children under 15 YEARS, since doses over 1mg have caused seizures. (Yikes!) Also, to the question about natural melatonin deficiency -This can be a real issue since kids don’t get out in the sun and play enough. If parents can just expose them to sunlight a bit during the day, Ironically, I’ve found in my coaching experience,this can help tremendously! They sleep more easily naturally (there are studies that show sunlight help regulate melatonin). Though light exposure at night can reportedly interfere with melatonin production(go figure!)hope that helps!