Most children (and most adults) fall asleep without too much difficulty, despite sometimes not wanting to go to bed. For some children who need help falling asleep, melatonin has become a commonly recommended supplement. Melatonin is safe (even after long-term use), effective (in most cases) and widely available (it even comes in gummies for children).
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a natural hormone that your body produces. In general terms, the melatonin levels in the brain do the opposite of daylight – they rise when daylight decreases and fall when daylight increases. But it is a little more complex. Melatonin is a hormone that appears to have several important protective effects on the brain, not all of which are completely understood. One of the primary effects is to regularize the sleep-wake pattern.
When Should It Be Taken?
Timing is key to dosing melatonin. It needs to be taken one to four hours before the expected time for sleep, gently signaling the brain it is nighttime. Melatonin helps set the “circadian clock”, but taken at other times in the day or too late at night (out of cycle), melatonin has little or no effect at all.
How Does It Work?
Besides helping to set the circadian clock, Melatonin also helps reduce the body temperature, which is another signal to the brain that it is time for sleep. Contrary to popular belief, it does not cause drowsiness. Melatonin has been used successfully for a number of children with sleep problems associated with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, epilepsy and migraine headaches.
Is Melatonin Safe?
The safety record of melatonin is exceptional. Studies of children and adults using melatonin for more than three years have shown no significant side effects. With the wide availability of melatonin in many homes and in attractive forms like gummies and brownies you would expect there have been a number of unintentional overdoses in children. At Central Ohio Poison Center, we have managed more than 800 children per year with unintentional ingestion of melatonin gummies (in many cases whole bottles, up to 90 gummies) without any significant effects.
Melatonin does not work for everyone and timing of the dose is key. Additionally, some other drugs effect metabolism of melatonin such as oral contraceptives. Birth control pills prolong the metabolism of melatonin and can throw off the effect on circadian rhythm, effectively nullifying the benefit of the melatonin.
If you have questions, call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222. It is free and confidential and they will address any specific questions you might have. Save the number in your cell phone or call for a free magnet with the poison center number and an information packet how to poison proof your home.
Henry Spiller is the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. He has spent more than 30 years in toxicology, with more than 300 publications in the field.
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