Melatonin is a sleep hormone and widely used dietary supplement to treat sleep disorders. But how does melatonin affect children and is it OK to use it for children?
Quality sleep is essential at every stage of life. Irregular sleep and sleep deprivation can affect concentration and learning capabilities, as well as energy levels. If you sleep too little for a longer period of time, the lack of sleep can lead to depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
Children are especially affected by sleep disorders because kids need more sleep than adults and their bodies are still developing. At toddler age, sleep deprivation often manifests as mood swings and hyperactivity. Later, learning difficulties and problems with socializing may additionally occur.
Circadian rhythm and children’s sleep needs
The physiological processes of the human body are in line with natural circadian rhythm.
The sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a hormone called melatonin, produced in the pineal gland of the brain. In adults and teenagers, the production of melatonin usually begins in the evening, when it’s getting dark, just a few hours before going to sleep, and continues until the morning. Melatonin levels are usually highest at night between 2 and 4 AM.
The circadian rhythm and melatonin production of younger kids is not yet stabilized and is constantly changing.
While newborns need an average of 16 hours of sleep a day, by the age of two, the need for sleep has already decreased to 12 hours. Teenagers’ need for sleep may vary depending on their bodies, but usually it’s somewhere between 8 and 10 hours.
When to suspect a sleep disorder
When talking about adults, sleep disorder refers to a condition wherein a person can’t have enough quality sleep and this situation has lasted already for a month or longer. Sometimes it could be struggling with falling asleep, or shallow sleep. Problems with sleep often imply that your body is not rested enough by the morning, so you may experience some difficulties with coping with your daily activities.
Sleep disorders in children can often be caused by daytime activities, such as an irregular schedule or excessive use of smart devices.
In today’s world, many distracting factors may inhibit the natural production of melatonin. For example, one of the main factors is the blue light, emitting to kids’ eyes primarily from screens, but also from other sources.
In short, exposure to blue light will send the brain signals that inhibit melatonin production. This can easily lead to a situation, where kids´ body is not prepared for sleep, although it´s bedtime, which is why your kid may be struggling with falling asleep.
A lack of sleep can end up with a child’s hyperactivity. The child may develop symptoms of ADHD, which can be alleviated with an age-appropriate daily routine and proper sleep. If sleep issues have been present already a month or longer, you should discuss this with a doctor, because there may be something bigger hidden behind.
Melatonin as a dietary supplement
In addition to the body’s natural ability to produce melatonin, melatonin can also be taken as a supplement. This is especially popular in the USA, although usage of this supplement is growing also in Estonia. Melatonin is available as tablets and as a spray.
The alleviation of sleep problems can be expected if melatonin is consumed for a longer period of time, according to the latest studies, for about 2-3 months.
Is melatonin for kids safe?
Parents probably know, that children’s sleep may vary quite a lot in length. Some children are supersleepers since they were born, at the same time while others will cry for a long time and can’t fall asleep, and even if they do, they wake up in every 30-40 minutes.
If your child seems constantly tired and doesn’t sleep well, then the question may arise, is it OK to consider melatonin as a dietary supplement for children as well.
According to some parents, melatonin really helps children to fall asleep and sleep better. In particular, it helps to regulate the cycle of the sleep at night and a day. Melatonin can also be helpful for children who are full of energy in the evenings and they are not able to wind down before bedtime, so it takes them longer to fall asleep in bed.
Melatonin is certainly considered as a milder option than strong sleeping pills, which are not prescribed to children. Nevertheless, there is not a 100% consensus, on whether melatonin should be given to children to help them to fall asleep.
Melatonin and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
There is research about the effect of melatonin on children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One study conducted among 6-12-year-old ADHD children demonstrated that with melatonin, children fell asleep by 27 ± 48 minutes faster and overall sleep time was increased by 20 ± 62 minutes.
Also, studies have found that melatonin is helpful for children with autistic traits, who may seem to tolerate this supplement quite well.
Side effects of melatonin
Small amount of melatonin is considered to be relatively safe. However, as with other supplements, it is recommended to start with the lowest possible dose of melatonin.
It’s important to keep in mind that melatonin is not a drug. However, it may not be safe, and melatonin can also cause side effects. The most common side effects of melatonin are headache, dizziness, drowsiness, and nausea. While giving your child melatonin as a dietary supplement, you should be extra cautious, because, in children, melatonin can also affect other hormone levels.
In addition, melatonin can interact with other medications and increase their effectiveness. Therefore, you should definitely consult a doctor before giving melatonin to your child, to find out if it’s safe and what dose would be enough to improve kids’ sleep.
How to treat sleep disorders
Sleep disorders are actually a broader issue, and these problems certainly need appropriate intervention, because in untreated, sleep disorders tend to recur, also in children.
Before using any drugs or dietary supplements, there are other options to consider. Often, just a few changes in child’s lifestyle or daily schedule may already be enough, and the right sleep pattern will be restored.
If the use of medication in children seems necessary, don’t make these decisions on your own, but consult with a sleep consultant or a pediatrician.
Recommendations and sleep tips for children and teenagers
For producing a sufficient amount of melatonin in the body, children need to stick to the same daily routine. This means, they should go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
To maintain this rhythm, kids should be exposed to a sufficient amount of sunlight during the day. In the evenings, artificial light should be reduced to minimum. This means that children should play, run and walk outdoors at least once a day. At least a few hours before going to bed in the evening, smart devices should be put away on the top of the cupboard.
Managing stress is also important. In teenagers, stress can be caused by school problems or, for example, lack of hanging out with friends, which is particularly growing issue in the last few years.
If your child feels overwhelmed, it’s good to take 5-10 minutes every evening and let your kid talk about his or her day. If your kid is rather introverted and not willing to talk, then keeping a diary would be one option to suggest, to write worries down.
How to promote natural melatonin production
In addition to regular daily routine, melatonin production is also promoted by a healthy lifestyle and proper nutrition.
In order to sleep well, you should make sure that your child’s diet includes fruits and vegetables and whole grain products every day, because the vitamins and minerals contained in them promote the production of melatonin in the brain.
For example, pineapple, banana and orange are recommended for promoting melatonin production. The last heavy meal should be at least a few hours before going to bed.
Try a weighted blanket
One possible option to regulate the sleep-wake cycle and alleviate sleep disorders is a children’s weighted blanket. Weighted blankets were introduced more than 100 years ago in rehabilitation centers and in therapy for children with special needs. These blankets were developed to help patients suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory sensitivity disorder, anxiety, stress, insomnia, and sleep problems.
Today, weighted blankets are also available for domestic use, to improve the quality of sleep at home.
A weighted blanket creates gentle pressure on the body. This, in turn, promotes the production of hormones of happiness and satisfaction, i.e melatonin and serotonin, so that your child could wind down and fall asleep faster.
A weighted blanket should be about 10% of a person’s body weight. Dreamsville weighted blanket for children weighs 4.5 kg and measures 100 x 150 cm. The bamboo fabric has an antibacterial treatment that inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi and protects against the spread of dust mites, thus also suitable for allergy sufferers.
All Dreamsville pillows and blankets are Oeko-Tex® certified. The weighted blanket comes with a special duvet cover, a gift made of soft Minky fabric.