A recent paper released through the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health is making waves through social media. University of Adelaide sleep researchers are concerned with the increased use of melatonin for children and the paper warns parents and doctors that giving their child melatonin isn’t a good idea, as the side effects for when children are older are unclear and the results could be serious. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, as I too am concerned with the increased use of this hormone in both adults and children when the first route, before any sleep aid drug is used, should be sleep behaviour and emotional modifications.
Melatonin has gained huge popularity as a non-prescription sleep aid, and to those of us who need sleep but want to avoid sleeping pills, or who are looking for something natural to help our children, melatonin sounds like a good thing. However, fresh ideas are saying that not all situations need melatonin. So what is melatonin, what does it do, and should I (or my child) use it?
Let’s look at some facts and myths around melatonin:
I know, melatonin is "the sleep hormone," and it’s made when it gets dark and helps you sleep. The key word there is "helps" – a melatonin supplement is not a sleeping pill since on its own it does not put you to sleep. It’s better to think of melatonin as a "sleep signaller" since what it does is signal the brain and body that it’s time for sleep as part of the system that helps your body figure out day and night and when it’s time to get some rest – the circadian rhythm. In your body melatonin is made in the Pineal (pin-KNEE-uhl) gland which is an area about the size of a grain of rice, tucked into the groove between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The Pineal gland gets messages from other areas of the brain that sense how much light comes into your eyes. As it gets darker, melatonin is released and causes a cascade of effects that help us sleep. If you ignore those cues you may just become withdrawn, irritable and sometimes disoriented but you won’t go to sleep. So more important than getting more melatonin into your body is making sure that you get the melatonin you need at the right time of day.
Natural Melatonin boosting actions for adults: To make sure that your body releases enough melatonin to set off that ‘sleepiness cascade’ make sure that between the hours of 8 and 10 pm that you start to dim the lights, reduce or cut out screen time (the light from the screen will inhibit melatonin production) and maybe even try some melatonin boosting foods such as pineapple, banana, walnuts, ginger, or oats. Having a set bedtime and wake time (no matter how much sleep you get in the middle) will help too.
Natural Melatonin boosting actions for children: Make sure screens are turned off at least two hours before bedtime. Start to ‘put the house to sleep’ by drawing curtains, particularly in the summer, to help dim the surrounding light. Make sure that the bedroom is completely dark – studies have shown that you don’t need to see light to have it affect your sleep, just having it shine on your closed eyelids is enough! Stick to bedtime routines and bedtimes, even at weekends to reinforce the daily circadian rhythm.
It’s true, melatonin is a hormone made by the body that regulates your circadian rhythm – the one that makes you sleepy at night and awake and alert during the day. The melatonin in supplements is synthesized though chemically is not much different than the melatonin you produce in your body. What is different though is the amount of melatonin in the synthesized supplement compared to the natural amount you produce in your body. That amount can vary drastically between people and changes as you age, as seasons change – there are all kinds of factors. Because there is so much variance between people it is hard to pin down a number but it is thought that the average male makes about 150 micrograms, and the average female only 100 micrograms (a microgram is 1/100th of a milligram or mg so 1 microgram = 0.01mg).
If you look at melatonin supplements out there they vary in dose but in general there are brands offering 1mg, 3mg, 5mg and 10mg doses. Given that recommended doses (from a variety of sources) recommend anything from 0.2mg to 20mg you could be under or over-dosing easily. There’s also a huge difference in how different people absorb melatonin from the supplements. A small study looked at the levels of melatonin in the blood and urine after taking a standardized dose of melatonin and found that the amounts varied 25 fold between people. So the supplements out there may raise your levels of melatonin far beyond what is needed. Lastly how we naturally release melatonin is in a slow wave throughout the night. Over the counter supplements can be dispersed in short bursts and your body isn’t able to process these bursts how it needs to. I cannot stress how important it is to be educated on how much melatonin you take and when you take it. It needs to be expertly prescribed and timed yet today’s society is popping them like candy.
Melatonin is a hormone, not just a vitamin or mineral. Melatonin’s main role in your body is as part of that circadian system but that is not all that it does. It has a hand in regulating other hormones (including those involved in ovulation cycles) and you can’t tell the body that the melatonin you are taking is just for sleep and it shouldn’t affect those other things in the body. Research is being done into all kinds of things, good and bad, that might be influenced by melatonin including stunting growth and late onset puberty.
The perception is that melatonin is safe because it is sold over the counter as a dietary supplement. Companies are allowed to do this because melatonin naturally occurs in some foods but the classification of "dietary supplement" means that it does not need to be regulated or controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as other drugs are. That means that dosages may vary within the product but also the places where they are made are not regulated. Some products on the market have been found to be contaminated with toxic metals or other drugs so if you are going to take melatonin for any reason it is important to purchase it from a reliable source. Melatonin has not been proven to be "unsafe" either, but there are few studies that track the long term effects of taking melatonin, and even fewer studies looking at the effects on humans (there’s lots of information on animals which makes sense – farmers for example are interesting in manipulating the circadian rhythm by introducing melatonin to fool an animals’ system into thinking it’s the right season to breed). More and more studies are being done on the long term effects of taking supplements but there are no conclusive studies yet.
Having just said that, sleep hygiene is most important overall for sustained, healthy sleep, but there are times for certain people where taking melatonin can help.
Your body is used to one circadian rhythm and you’ve upped and moved it to somewhere where the light cues are different. Taking melatonin can help that system shift to its new time zone more effectively but you can also help fight jet lag naturally.
Jet lag busters: You can start to shift your rhythm slowly before you leave – if traveling West go to bed an hour or two later for a few days before traveling and make sure to get bright light in the evening to delay that melatonin release. If you are traveling East try to go to bed a little earlier and get bright light in the morning to give that ‘morning time’ cue. Make sure that you avoid caffeinated beverages (and alcohol) while you travel, eat small meals at the appropriate time for your destination and drink plenty of water. Apps such as Jet Lag Rooster can help you put a plan in place – plug in where you are going and when and it will tell you when to seek/avoid light, when the optimal time for sleeping is and more handy hints.
Delayed Sleep Phase/Circadian Rhythm Disorder
Individuals with this disorder will experience falling asleep much later at night, typically after midnight and perhaps not until the morning. Because of this it can be very difficult to wake in the morning. Referred as the “social jet lag” melatonin may be necessary for someone with circadian rhythm disorder as it can help shift their sleep schedule earlier so that it is more in tune with societies natural sleep pattern.
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Often the disorder and/or the medication taken by children with ADHD can result in sleep-onset insomnia. The first step in combating this and improving overall sleep health is to practice proper sleep hygiene and for the most part that alone can help the child fall asleep easier and improve overall sleep time. At times a melatonin treatment may be included as well.
Sleep difficulties for children on the autism spectrum is quite common as is a recommended melatonin protocol. Following consistent routine and proper sleep hygiene is also encouraged as children with autism may have difficulty understanding the social cues of bedtime routine. Researchers have found that children on the spectrum may have lower amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid needed within the body to create melatonin. A melatonin treatment should be discussed with your doctor on the correct dose and timing for your child.
I understand the dread of the bedtime battles at night with your little ones – we’re all exhausted at night and we just want it to be over. I know it’s not fun to be the bad guy and have to set rules and limits in regards to your child’s sleep. I have 3 kids – I get it! But I want to see more parents fighting the fight at bedtime and implementing proper sleep strategies then turning to a Band-Aid solution like giving their child a supplemental hormone. Melatonin pills and my favourite "quick fix" – melatonin spray – yes folks - sprayable sleep - not to be confused with sprayable nutrition and sprayable exercise, may seem like an easy over-the-counter solution for your child’s or your own sleep issues but it’s not the right solution you should be taking. Practicing proper sleep hygiene consistently and re-establishing a positive relationship with sleep for your whole family should always be the first steps. We want to teach our kids that they are capable of doing it themselves. This will be a lesson they will keep for a lifetime.
I provide free child and family sleep support on my Facebook page. I invite you to join our sleep community as I work towards Good Night Sleep Site's mission of a healthier rested family unit. For more sleep tips please visit Good Night Sleep Site and visit me on Instagram and Twitter. Join our movement and #BringBackBedtime.
Helping out at your child's class field trip is such a fun and special experience for the both of you. If you are able to sign up for one, I recommend you do, as it's a great way to connect with your little one while getting to know their teachers and friends. I was a field trip newbie last year. It was my first time helping out with my daughter's class and I quickly realized that there were some must-haves and do’s and don'ts that I had never thought of for the big day. Even before you step on the school-bus - yes, they still smell the same - there are a few things you should make sure you take care of.
On the day of the trip you will be assigned a group of children that you will be in charge of throughout the day – set the rules of your group right away.
Fun Tip! Tie in your group name with what you are wearing. Plan your wardrobe accordingly. You want comfort but I also think it’s a great idea to wear a brightly coloured or patterned top so that your group is able to spot you easily in a crowd. I wore a black and white striped t-shirt and our group name was team Zebra’s. The kids knew to look for my shirt if they got separated and they were easy to regroup when I called out “team Zebra!”
The last thing to bring is your patience and a smile. Remember to not yell at other people's kids as you would yell at your own. That’s usually frowned upon. Keep your ears and eyes open and have fun! Take in these moments because one day your child will be old enough where mom or dad helping out at school is not cool, or hip, or sick, or whatever they are calling it these days.
And don't forget to keep the wine chilled for when you get home.
What are your field trip tips? Post them in the comments below.
I provide free child and family sleep support on my Facebook page. I invite you to join our sleep community as I work towards Good Night Sleep Site's mission of a healthier rested family unit. For more sleep tips please visit Good Night Sleep Site and visit me on Instagram and Twitter. Join our movement and #BringBackBedtime
When I first attended Blissdom, I was not a blogger. I was a small business owner and my specialty was sleep. I had a blog that I managed from time to time, and I knew the importance of providing my readers and clients with sleep information - but I wasn’t a writer - I was a sleep educator and my blog was definitely lacking in some blogging love. I wrestled with the idea of going to Blissdom wondering if it would really be worthwhile for me?
I knew I needed to get more blog focused with my company and I knew it was an area that I was neglecting in my business that could increase my potential traffic and income. After some gentle nudging from some friends – (shout out to Andrea Nair and Kelly Flannigan Bos!) – I started to do my Blissdom research and saw that the presentations and microsessions being offered could definitely add value to my blog and overall business model.
There were also many people attending that I had developed a business and social relationship with but had only ever ‘spoken’ to them through email or social media. I wanted to meet them face-to-face and make that in-person connection. In the end, I made the leap and it was definitely worthwhile for me to attend, and I looked at it as a great investment for Good Night Sleep Site. I bought my ticket and there it was. I was going to Blissdom!
The conference was amazing. The people I met and the information that I took away from it was incredible. This conference isn’t just for bloggers. It’s also for business owners like myself who could learn a thing or two more about blogging and social media. I also can’t stress how important it is as a business owner to make those networking and in-person connections. They are better than any ad you could run or PR you could distribute. People I met helped me recreate my small sleep consulting practice into a national corporation with a team of sleep consultants now working with me.
Blissdom was the first time I met so many YMC gals. It was my first time meeting Erica in person (I was so nervous!) but she instantly put me at ease. Blissdom was the bridge that helped me join the YMC team, which has put me in front of some major doors that have benefited my business, not to mention has made me become a better writer. I’m always honoured to be a part of this awesome team. Jennifer Powell the Principal of Blissdom Canada has turned into a friend and has helped me so much with her amazing advice. A recent reference from her allowed me to finalize a huge partnership between Good Night Sleep Site and a major corporation to begin creating corporate sleep wellness lunch and learn programs for their clients. The connections and more importantly friendships I've made through Blissdom Canada has benefited my business model, social presence, and lead opportunities for the past 2 years. Attending each year as a business owner is a no-brainer for me.
My first year going in 2013 I bought my Blissdom ticket 2 weeks before the conference. I was so nervous! Last year at Blissdom I was honoured to serve on a wellness panel and speak about my true passion - sleep. This year I’m counting down the days to not only catch up with friends and colleagues, but to be educated and inspired as Blissdom always does for me. Every year I walk away ready to take on the sleep world, and I always have Blissdom to thank for that.
Whether you blog or not, if you are a small business owner Blissdom will be one of your best investments you make this year. I hope to see you there!