Parents interested in making sure their children get enough sleep are increasingly turning to melatonin supplements, and while their intentions are good, melatonin is not as harmless as they may think.

Not much data about the use of melatonin in children in the U.S. exist. In 2018 a study found that more than one percent of U.S. parents reported their children had taken melatonin in the last 30 days. To get a current picture of melatonin use in kids, a team led by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder asked parents how long they had been giving their kids melatonin, what dose they gave them and when they gave it.

Most of the melatonin-related calls to poison control were concerning children under the age of five. A lot of melatonin products marketed for children are gummies, so they look and taste like candy.

Parents are always looking for solutions to help their children sleep. “Children's sleep problems are always a common concern for parents,” Lauren Hartstein, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor. As a result, melatonin is being heavily marketed as a quick and easy way to get kids sleeping more, and “Parents see this marketing as an opportunity to help their kids sleep,” she added.

Our bodies naturally manufacture melatonin, a hormone that is connected to our sleep/wake cycles and affected by exposure to light. As a result, many parents consider melatonin supplements to be ‘natural.’

Parents of children between the ages of one and 13 years old completed an online questionnaire about their children's sleep-related habits, including melatonin use over the past 30 days. Data from almost 1,000 children were analyzed for the study. The analysis was done according to age group: one to four years old (preschool) ; five to nine years old (school-aged); and ten to 13 years old (preteen).

As children got older, the dose of melatonin increased from about 0.5 milligrams for preschool children to two milligrams for preteens. Preschoolers who took melatonin had been doing so for about 12 months, while school-aged children had been taking it for about 18 months and preteens for about 21 months. Melatonin was consistently given about 30 minutes before bedtime in each age group.

In the U.S., melatonin is considered a dietary supplement, and is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is sold without a prescription, and the amount of melatonin in an individual tablet or gummy can vary significantly from what's listed on the label.

“Before parents turn to melatonin supplements, they should ask their pediatrician or other healthcare provider about possible causes of sleep problems, and other ways to address them.”

Gummies were the most common form of melatonin given to kids (64.3 percent), followed by chewable tablets (27.0 percent), pills (6.3 percent) and liquids (2.4 percent), the study found. The gummies look and taste like candy, and this has meant the incidence of melatonin ingestion reported to poison control centers increased by 530 percent between 2012 and 2021. As Hartstein, a postdoctoral fellow in the sleep and development lab at CU Boulder points out, however, “The number of kids who have access to melatonin and are taking it has increased, so the number of calls to poison control has also increased.” Most of the calls to poison control were about children under the age of five, and most of these children had no symptoms and were fine.

Before parents turn to supplements to help kids sleep, they should look into why kids are having sleep problems. Early school start times are a problem for many teens. So are screen times late at night.

Young children also benefit from a sleep routine, like brushing their teeth and then hearing stories. Hartstein urges, “Before parents turn to melatonin supplements, they should ask their pediatrician or other healthcare provider about possible causes of sleep problems, and other ways to address them.”

The current survey also asked parents why they are giving their kids melatonin, if the children had experienced any side effects from it, and if and why they stopped giving their kids melatonin. The results will be published in a subsequent study.

The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.