Melatonin is not fully regulated by the FDA, and there are concerns about children taking the supplement due to associated risks, such as dependency and overdose.
A 2023 survey showed that 1 in 5 school-aged children and preteens might be taking melatonin for sleep, with findings being published in JAMA Pediatrics. Preteens (aged 10 to 13 years) had the most melatonin use, followed closely by children aged 5 to 9 years.
“If this many kids are taking melatonin, that suggests there are a lot of underlying sleep issues out there that need to be addressed,” said primary study author Lauren Hartstein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sleep and Development Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in a recent press release.
Based on 1000 parent responses, 19.4% of preteens have taken melatonin during the past 30 days, and 18.5% of children aged 5 to 9 years received melatonin in that given time. Further, asignificant 6% of preschoolers aged 1 to 4 years used melatonin in the past month.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm, which is the body’s physiological changes throughout a 24-hour cycle. Melatonin is only available as a prescription drug in other countries, but the United States classifies it as a dietary supplement, which means chemically synthesized or animal-derived forms are available over-the-counter.
In 2022, more parents were providing melatonin to their healthy children, according to Hartstein. But there are little safety and efficacy data to support the use of melatonin, and the supplement comes with risks. Specifically,
The current study was conducted by a team at the University of Colorado Boulder using the results of a survey administered to parents in the first half of 2023; these results allowed the investigators to identify trends in melatonin usage.
For instance, children of a preschool age used melatonin for approximately 1 year, on average. Children aged 5 to 9 years used melatonin for approximately 18 months (median duration), and this duration was 21 months for preteens. A similar trend was observed in relation to dosage, with preschoolers taking doses between 0.25 and 2 mg and preteens using 10 mg or more.
According to an April 2023 study, 22 of 25 gummy melatonin products that were tested did not have the correct amount of melatonin, as per the label classification. Different studies have also shown that some of the melatonin products contain serotonin, so, in effect, “parents may not actually know what they are giving to their children when administering these supplements,” Hartstein said in the press release.
In addition, melatonin gummies taste like candy and children are at risk of accidental overdose (poisoning). Children are also at risk of developing dependency on melatonin.
Melatonin still can be an effective short-term sleep aid for children, according to Julie Boergers, PhD, a psychologist and pediatric sleep specialist at Rhode Island Hospital and the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Melatonin may be especially beneficial for children withautism or severe sleep problems, Boergers noted, but she recommends making behavioral changes as a first-line treatment before turning to medications or supplements.
“We hope this paper raises awareness for parents and clinicians, and sounds the alarm for the scientific community,” Hartstein said. “We are not saying that melatonin is necessarily harmful to children. But much more research needs to be done before we can state with confidence that it is safe for kids to be taking long-term.”
Study finds melatonin use soaring among youth. University of Colorado at Boulder. News Release. November 13, 2023. Accessed November 20, 2023. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1007737