By Brooke Helton Jan 13, 2023, 4:05 PM
This article was medically reviewed by Alex Dimitriu, MD, psychiatrist and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine.
- In certain cases, melatonin supplements could help kids with ongoing sleep issues get better rest.
- Sleep experts emphasize that changing your kid’s bedtime routine could have a more lasting impact.
- If you do offer melatonin, check with a doctor first and shop for products tested by a third party.
Melatonin is a hormone your brain produces at night to help you sleep. While your body makes it naturally, you can also find it in supplement form. Since experts believe low melatonin levels may play a role in sleep disorders, you might reach for a melatonin supplement when the Sandman refuses to show up.
But if your kids also have trouble falling or staying asleep, could they benefit from a kid-sized dose of melatonin? Perhaps.
Experts generally consider small doses of melatonin — around 0.5 milligram (mg) to 1 mg — safe for children who experience sleep disruptions.
But melatonin shouldn’t necessarily be the first thing you reach for, says Shelby Harris, a psychologist board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine and director of sleep health at Sleepopolis.
In some cases, tweaking your child’s bedroom routine might be more helpful than heading to Target for a bottle of children’s melatonin gummies.
Read on to learn more about how melatonin works, when it might prove helpful for kids, and what you can do to improve your child’s sleep for good.
How does melatonin work?
According to Harris, sleep experts usually recommend melatonin for people who can get a full night’s sleep, but not always on the schedule they need.
If you’re jet lagged after a cross-country flight and don’t feel sleepy at night, for instance, a melatonin supplement might help you adjust your circadian rhythm for your new time zone.
Medical term: Your circadian rhythm, or internal clock, is the internal process that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. It generally helps you feel energized during the day and sleepy at night.
Beyond jet lag, melatonin might also help if you have:
- Shift work disorder
- Delayed sleep phase disorder
When can melatonin help kids?
Most of the research on melatonin involves adult participants, and studies on melatonin in the general child population remain very limited, according to Harris.
Yet, some evidence does suggest melatonin may help improve sleep issues for children on the neurodiverse spectrum, including kids with conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism, according to Dr. David Berger, board-certified pediatrician and founder of Wholistic Pediatrics & Family Care.
Medical term: Neurodiversity describes the idea that there’s no “correct” way for a brain to work and that everyone experiences the world differently. Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, first coined the term in the 90s to promote acceptance of neurodevelopmental conditions like autism and ADHD.
Evidence linking low melatonin levels and autism suggests melatonin supplements may improve sleep with autism, especially for kids. Researchers also found that melatonin might help improve other symptoms that often show up with autism, including anxiety and sensory issues.
Melatonin may help kids with ADHD get a better night’s sleep, too. In one study involving 74 children with ADHD, researchers found that melatonin helped reduce sleep-wake disturbances and cut down the time it took to fall asleep for 61% of the study group.
Just keep in mind that since existing research mostly focuses on kids with neurodevelopmental or sleep disorders, experts don’t yet know exactly how melatonin might affect kids who don’t have these conditions.
Are there safety concerns?
Beyond the lack of research on melatonin for kids, you may not always know how much melatonin you’re giving them.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates melatonin as a dietary supplement. That means melatonin products don’t have to adhere to the same strict labeling standards as medications. As a result, some children’s melatonin products might have more or less melatonin than the label suggests.
One small study found that some melatonin supplements had less than half of the melatonin indicated on the label, while others had over four times the labeled amount. Some products even had small amounts of serotonin — a prescription-only substance often found in antidepressants.
What’s more, children’s melatonin gummies look and taste a lot like candy — so your child might try to help themselves when you’re not looking, which could lead to a melatonin overdose.
What to know about melatonin overdoses in children
According to a CDC report, more than 260,000 children overdosed on melatonin between 2012-2021.
Melatonin overdoses aren’t usually toxic, and most children who overdosed recovered with minor or no effects. But while some kids can “sleep off” the effects without issue, some children in the CDC report required hospitalization, and two died.
Children don’t always show symptoms of melatonin overdoses, but possible signs of taking too much melatonin include:
Always store melatonin supplements and other vitamins where children can’t get to them, just as you’d keep medications out of reach. If you think your child accidentally took too much melatonin, you can contact Poison Control for guidance.
How to use melatonin safely
If your child’s pediatrician gives you the green light to try melatonin, remember to:
- Look for a COA: Berger recommends looking for melatonin products with a Certificate of Analysis (COA) from a third-party lab. These certificates verify the total melatonin content in a supplement, and some test for additional substances, like serotonin. That way, you’ll know the label on the bottle or bag is accurate.
- Follow your pediatrician’s recommended dosage: Some experts recommend starting with a low dosage of no more than 1 mg. However, that dose may depend on factors like your child’s age, height, and weight. It’s always best to check the dose with your child’s pediatrician.
- Time it properly: Melatonin needs time to work, so giving it to your child right when you tuck them in isn’t ideal. Experts recommend giving kids a melatonin supplement around 30-90 minutes before bedtime.
- Combine melatonin with changes to the bedtime routine: Experts strongly recommend using melatonin alongside good sleep hygiene practices — and only when behavioral strategies to improve your child’s sleep haven’t helped.
Tips to help your child sleep without melatonin
Harris recommends trying to improve your child’s sleep without supplements before offering melatonin.
You can establish good bedtime habits and try to help bring your child’s circadian rhythm back into alignment by:
Creating a bedtime routine
To help your child get in the right mindset for sleep, try creating a nighttime routine that’s easy for them to follow.
For example, you might have them put on their pajamas, brush their teeth, and tuck in for a bedtime story.
Berger recommends sticking to the same sleep schedule every day of the week, if possible.
Cutting off screen time
Evidence links the blue lights in tablets, smartphones, and TV screens to reduced melatonin production. That’s why it’s best to turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime — Harris recommends two hours.
Instead, help your child wind down with screen-free activities like reading books, solving puzzles, or playing board games.
If your child still naps, try to schedule them at the same time every day.
Experts recommend kids nap before two or three o’clock in the afternoon to avoid interfering with bedtime.
Heading outside in the morning
When your child first wakes up, Berger recommends heading outside so they can feel the daylight.
Sunlight might help shift your child’s internal clock so they feel more awake during the day — and sleepier at night.
Avoiding sodas or candy before bed
Food or drinks with caffeine, like sodas or chocolate bars, can interfere with sleep quality.
That’s why experts recommend cutting off caffeine at least six hours before bed. Some also say kids shouldn’t have caffeine at all.
Instead, offer hungry kids sleep-friendly nighttime snacks, like a bowl of yogurt or a handful of nuts.
Melatonin supplements may help some children fall asleep when tweaking their bedtime routine doesn’t make a difference. Some research also links melatonin supplements to better sleep for children on the neurodiverse spectrum, including autistic kids and kids with ADHD.
However, there’s not a lot of long-term research on how melatonin affects children with only occasional sleep issues.
At the end of the day, melatonin isn’t a magic sleeping pill, and it won’t work for everyone. If your child has persistent sleep issues, experts recommend speaking with your child’s pediatrician to consider other solutions that might help them get better sleep.