You might find melatonin in the supplement aisle, but it's also a hormone secreted by a gland in your brain. One of its main functions is regulating your body's circadian rhythms or "body clock," so researchers have investigated using melatonin as a sleep aid. In an email interview, Dr. Janet McKenzie said studies have been conducted, with limited results, exploring possible benefits of melatonin supplementation for children with insomnia.
Clinical Pediatrics Study
A study published in 2003 in "Clinical Pediatrics" revealed positive results of melatonin for nearly all of the children enrolled at a sleep center. The study subjects, ages 2 to 18, had a variety of documented sleep problems. Nightly use of melatonin was reported by parents to have an immediate influence on the time it took for their children to fall asleep, although overall sleep patterns took up to two more weeks to normalize. Nighttime wakenings lessened significantly. No adverse effects were observed.
What Melatonin Does
One of the attractive points of using melatonin for sleep problems is how it works. Pediatrician Anatoly Belilovsky explains via email: "Melatonin merely signals the onset of bedtime to the brain; it does not sedate." He adds that melatonin promotes release of endorphins in the brain, helping to promote sleep when chronic pain is present. For the American Academy of Pediatrics, sleep disorder specialists Dr. Kathi Kemper and Dr. Judith Owens note that melatonin has hypnotic and chronobiotic -- related to shifting circadian rhythms -- properties.
How Much To Use
The relative safety of melatonin supplements makes its use for children appealing to parents. Belilovsky recommends starting your child on 1 mg at bedtime and increasing up to 3 mg if necessary, but he adds that you should include other "common sense management approaches to childhood insomnia." The Clinical Pediatrics study found variations in the amount of melatonin required by children of different ages in order to achieve the same effects. Those ages 2 to 6 benefited most from an average dose of 1.4 mg per night. McKenzie says that and other studies support the idea that when it comes to hormones, less is more. Low doses were sometimes more effective than higher doses. She says a typical adult dose ranges from 3 to 6 mg, but dosing standards are still being developed.
Your body's hormonal balances are sensitive and easily disrupted by your overall state of health, your diet, physical activity and toxins. For example, melatonin helps determine when females begin menstruating and when menopause occurs. Supplements that mimic, replace or otherwise influence your body's hormones should be used with caution, particularly for children whose bodies are still developing. McKenzie says melatonin should only be administered to children under a physician's supervision. Integrated medicine and nutrition expert Dr. Michael Wald, in an email interview, warned that taking "exogenous melatonin in the form of a supplement can suppress the child's natural melatonin levels -- potentially forever. It if must be used, saliva testing should be attempted to approximate the ideal dose in any person, and certainly in a 3-year-old."
Rather than using melatonin supplements as a sleep aid for your child, lifestyle changes may be effective and safer. "Melatonin can be increased through the use of natural light and by the relative absence of light at night," Wald says. The traditional Chinese medicine approach to pediatric sleep disorders would look at root causes, Joan Boccino, MS, L.Ac. -- a national certification in Oriental Medicine that includes acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine -- said in an email interview. Rather than prescribe melatonin, she and her colleagues "would see why the patient was not generating sufficient amounts on their own and then address the pattern of disharmony in the body." Examples of issues that might disrupt your child's sleep are stress and excess heat in the body.