Doctors say parents hoping for a quick fix to their children’s sleep problems should think twice before buying melatonin medications online.
- Experts warn long-term effects of melatonin are not yet known, although it is not considered dangerous
- Although largely unavailable to children in Australia, melatonin is readily available in online stores.
- Doctors say most children’s sleep problems can be solved in other ways
Melatonin is a natural hormone that the brain produces when the sun goes down.
In Australia, medically strength melatonin is available over the counter for people over 55 who have trouble sleeping, but requires a prescription for anyone younger.
Melatonin is sold cheaply on overseas shopping websites, but doctors urge parents to be careful not to use it as the solution of choice for children who have trouble falling asleep .
While homeopathic melatonin supplements can be purchased commercially in some Australian stores, the active ingredient in melatonin is heavily diluted and there is little evidence that the pills have an effect.
The hormone’s promise is that once the dose is administered, the child will fall asleep more easily and reduce stress for the whole family.
Pediatrician and health services group leader at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Harriet Hiscock says she will prescribe melatonin, but not as a first choice.
“These are usually children who have underlying developmental issues, for autism in particular, and [the parents] tried behavioral approaches and they didn’t work, ”she said.
“It’s not great using it where you haven’t gone through a healthcare professional to have a discussion to try other things that don’t involve melatonin.”
Dr Hiscock said that although it was a “fairly safe” drug, there were other options.
“You can use behavioral strategies instead and two weeks later your child is sleeping much better and doesn’t need to take melatonin every night,” she said.
No long-term data on side effects
Sunshine Coast pediatrician Anthony Morosini said he has prescribed melatonin, which may help treat children with sleep disorders.
But he said long-term effects weren’t clear and it just wouldn’t work for some kids.
“[Some] children can have nightmares, wet the bed or feel dizzy the next day, ”he said.
“Animal studies are concerned about the effect of melatonin on puberty hormones, ovaries and testes, but we do not have the answer for the effect in humans.
The two experts said a child’s sleep problems could be caused by anxiety, worries about schooling, or just because they used to go to bed late – all things a parent could fix. without using melatonin.
Dr Hiscock cautioned that those who buy melatonin online should pay attention to dosages and ideally speak to a medical professional before purchasing.
“With these websites there is no indication on the dosage and you can get anything from a milligram to 10 milligrams of melatonin,” she said.
A 2017 report in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that the dose of melatonin in products sold online varied up to 465 percent.
Are sleep problems more and more frequent?
It is not known how many Australian children take melatonin, but the same report found that in the United States – where it can be bought over the counter – total sales more than doubled between 2007 and 2012 to reach 3 , 1 million users.
Of these, 419,000 were children.
Dr Hiscock said it was unclear whether parents were less tolerant of sleepless children, or were simply more willing to discuss the challenge.
She said the rise of technological devices could be contributing to the problem.
“We know that blue light from iPads and computers blocks the natural melatonin made in our brains,” said Dr Hiscock.