We 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.
When one of our sleep consultants passed a local news story about a sleep trend, 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.
“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. Let’s put 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.