Supplements given to children to help them sleep

Growing number of parents opting to give kids melatonin

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For Mindie Barnett, putting her toddler Julian to bed was anything but a dream.

"It would take him sometimes two hours time to fall asleep, and it essentially required me to rock him in a chair," she explained.

That all changed when a doctor suggested over-the-counter melatonin, a synthetic form of the hormone your body produces to help regulate sleep.

"He falls asleep within ten minutes of taking it," said Barnett.

She isn't the only parent tucking her tot in with melatonin.   While it's commonly recommended for children with certain neurological or developmental disorders, sleep expert Dr. Sanjeev Kothare says a growing number of parents are now giving it typically to developing kids with insomnia.  Some companies even sell flavored and low dose versions of the supplement.

"Families have heard from others, they've seen on the internet, they've seen it on TV, that melatonin may be a useful product and a easy fix," said Kothare.

But many experts, including Kothare, warn that it's not a cure-all.   The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says melatonin is generally considered safe for children to use temporarily and under a doctor's supervision.

"The studies that have looked at melatonin use in children, both in, in typically developing and special populations, have found it to be effective, particularly in reducing the time to fall asleep," said Dr. Judith Owens with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

But Owens cautions clinical studies on long-term side effects are lacking.

"One of the concerning issues is that melatonin does have an impact on the systems in the body that govern puberty related changes," she said.

Another concern is that dosing can be confusing for parents.  A single dose can range from point-five-milligrams to five milligrams, depending on age and sensitivity to the hormone.

"Giving more than 5mg has not found to be beneficial, and giving beyond 10mg definitely invokes anxiety, even in me, as to what the long-term and short-term side effects could be," warned Kothare.

And while melatonin is non-habit forming, Owens is worried about psychological dependence. 

"I've actually had 5 and 6-year-olds who ask their parents for their melatonin dose at bedtime," she said.

Before starting any sleep medication, it's important for your pediatrician to rule out medical or behavioral sleep issues.  As for Barnett, she plans on putting the melatonin away soon. 

"I think as long as you don't abuse it, and it doesn't carry on for years and years and years, there's nothing wrong with it," she said.

Experts say it also helps to practice good "sleep hygiene"- which includes limiting TV before bed, establishing a regular bedtime routine and, if necessary, teaching your child to fall asleep independently.

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