A Valuable Resource or Children’s Health Risk?


March 21, 2024 – For Courtney Stinson, ensuring her daughter’s comfort is a constant battle against the challenges of congenital myopathy. At 9 years old, she relies on a ventilator to breathe, has multiple respiratory treatments daily, and is under the constant care of rotating skilled caregivers. Last year alone, she endured 36 doctor appointments.

To ease her daughter’s struggles with sleep, and after consulting a pediatrician, Stinson turned to melatonin, a hormone naturally produced by the body to manage sleep. She gave her daughter a low dose of melatonin and saw significant improvement in her ability to settle down, especially when her mind raced.

“She would have such a hard time sleeping when everything is swirling in her head,” said Stinson, a mother of two who lives in Milan, MI. “It’s really been helpful when her brain is moving 100 miles an hour.”

Melatonin is sold without a prescription as a sleep aid in the form of a supplement. For some parents, especially those whose children have complex needs, melatonin can be a valuable resource – but the rise in melatonin across otherwise healthy populations has had its consequences, too, according to pediatric sleep experts. 

Recent data from the CDC illustrates one of these drawbacks: a significant surge in accidental melatonin ingestion among young children over the past 2 decades.

Between 2012 and 2021, poison center calls related to pediatric melatonin exposures skyrocketed by 530%, while emergency department visits for unsupervised melatonin ingestion by infants and young children surged by 420% from 2009 to 2020, according to the CDC report.

Between 2019 and 2022, an estimated 10,930 emergency room visits were linked to 295 cases of children under the age of 6 ingesting melatonin. These incidents accounted for 7.1% of all emergency department visits for medication exposures in this age group, according to the report.

The share of U.S. adults using melatonin increased from 0.4% during 1999 to 2000 to 2.1% during 2017 to 2018.

Doctors say the escalating number of melatonin-related incidents underscores the need for increased awareness and safety measures to protect young children from unintentional overdose, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and confusion.

“I do think there is a safe way to use it in certain children, but it should only be used under the guidance of a physician,” said Laura Sterni, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center. “There are dangers to using it without that guidance.”

Almost 1 in 5 Children Use Melatonin 

Nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and preteens take melatonin for sleep, according to research published last year in JAMA Pediatrics, which also found that 18% of children between 5 and 9 take the supplement.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued a warning in 2022 advising parents to approach the sleep aid with caution. 

“While melatonin can be useful in treating certain sleep-wake disorders, like jet lag, there is much less evidence it can help healthy children or adults fall asleep faster,” M. Adeel Rishi, MD, vice chair of the Academy of Sleep Medicine’s Public Safety Committee, warned on the the academy’s site. “Instead of turning to melatonin, parents should work on encouraging their children to develop good sleep habits, like setting a regular bedtime and wake time, having a bedtime routine, and limiting screen time as bedtime approaches.”

What’s the Best Way to Give Kids Melatonin?

Melatonin has been found to work well for children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, or other conditions like blindness that can hinder the development of a normal circadian rhythm. 

But beyond consulting a pediatrician, caregivers whose children are otherwise healthy should consider trying other approaches to sleep disruption first, Sterni said, and things like proper sleep hygiene and anxiety should be addressed first. 

“Most sleep problems in children really should be managed with behavioral therapy alone,” she said. “To first pull out a medication to treat that I think is the wrong approach.”

Sterni also recommends starting with the lowest dose possible, which is 0.5 milligrams, with the help of pediatrician. It should be taken 1 to 2 hours before bedtime and 2 hours after their last meal, she said. 

But she notes that because melatonin is sold as a supplement and is not regulated by the FDA, it is impossible to know the exact amount in each dose.

According to JAMA, out of 25 supplements of melatonin, most of the products contained up to 50% more melatonin than what was listed.

Dangers of Keeping It Within Reach 

One of the biggest dangers for children is that melatonin is often sold in the form of gummies or chewable tablets – things that appeal to children, said Jenna Wheeler, MD, a pediatric critical care doctor at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. 

Because it is sold as a supplement, there are no child-safe packaging requirements. 

From a critical care standpoint, just remember to keep it up high, not on the nightstand or in a drawer,” Wheeler said. “A child may eat the whole bottle, thinking, ‘This is just like fruits snacks.’”

She noted that the amount people need is often lower than what they buy at the store, and that regardless of whether it is used in proper amounts, it is not meant to be a long-term supplement – for adults or for children.

“Like with anything that’s out there, it’s all about how it’s used,” Wheeler said. “The problem is when kids get into it accidentally or when it’s not used appropriately.”


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