In special needs circles, it has been touted as the miracle sleep cure. But is melatonin actually safe for children? Pediatricians aren't yet convinced.
Many people have trouble getting a decent's night sleep, myself included. When I first heard about melatonin, it sounded too good to be true. A pill that would help me ease into the land of nod, and stay there. And it was natural, to boot. What's the catch, I asked. Well, seemingly none.
In fact, melatonin was the answer many parents unhesitatingly gave me when I complained about my son's wakefulness on autism forums. Though I often take it myself, do I really want to give my 4-year-old a pill—how ever natural—to get him to sleep? The jury was still out when I read the CBC's discussion about children and melatonin use.
Just as well. While 25 per cent of children suffer from some form of sleep difficulty, that figure jumps to half for children with special needs, according to the Canadian Sleep Society. But is a supplement really the answer? And are there any long-term side effects we still don't know about?
On the label, melatonin is designed to be used "to overcome jet lag or occasional insomnia," but many people use it every single night. And that's potentially dangerous, particularly when those people are children whose bodies and brains are still developing.
"It's being touted as this magic pill," said Dr. Shelly Weiss, a neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of the Canadian Sleep Society. "There's definitely concern that people are going to use it more widely and not appreciate that their child can learn to sleep better without a hormone being given."
Wait? What, a hormone? Though Weiss admits that when used in correlation with behavioural strategies, melatonin is a "godsend" for children with conditions like autism, cerebral palsy and ADHD, yet she and her colleagues caution against long-term use of the supplement which can delay development and the onset of puberty.
So what's a parent to do? Maybe only use it in cycles, or during particularly bad sleep patches. For now, I'll hold off until my son is a little older. In the meantime, it won't hurt him (or me) to try the following 'natural' sleep tips, courtesy of the Sleep Society.
Does your child take melatonin to sleep? Are you concerned about the possible long-term side effects?