Lots of parents give their kids melatonin, new research finds. But should they? Here's what doctors say.

The head of a child asleep, against a pillow
Is it OK for parents to give their kids melatonin? Here's what experts say. (Millennium Images/Gallery Stock)

Melatonin has been a buzzy supplement for years, and it's often used as a sleep aid. But a growing body of research finds that some parents have been using it to help their kids fall asleep at night, despite a lack of evidence that it's effective in treating insomnia in healthy kids.

But what's the official guidance on using melatonin supplements for kids? Is it safe? And what do pediatricians have to say about it? Here's the deal.

What exactly is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that controls the sleep-wake cycle, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The body naturally produces melatonin in response to darkness, but it's also available in supplement form.

What new research says

Research from the University of Colorado, Boulder found that nearly 1 in 5 school-aged kids and preteens take melatonin for sleep. Published in JAMA Pediatrics in November, the survey of about 1,000 parents found that 18.5% of kids between the ages of 5 and 9 had been given melatonin in the past 30 days, while 19.4% of 10- to 13-year-olds had used the sleep aid. Some younger children are also taking it, with 6% of kids between the ages of 1 and 4 using melatonin before bed.

The University of Colorado research follows a recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in March, which found that nearly half of parents polled gave their child a melatonin supplement to help them sleep. For that survey, researchers asked more than 2,000 adults in the U.S. about sleep habits and melatonin use for their families. The researchers discovered that 46% of parents had given melatonin to a child under the age of 13 at some point to help them fall asleep. Results also revealed that 30% of parents had given a child over the age of 13 melatonin to help them fall asleep at night.

When the researchers drilled down further into the data, they discovered that fathers were 13% more likely than mothers to have given melatonin to a child who is 13 or older to help them fall asleep. Parents between the ages of 25 and 34 were also the most likely to have given melatonin to a child under the age of 13 to help them sleep.

What experts think

The use of melatonin in kids has been questioned, despite mounting evidence that parents are giving the supplement to their kids. A YouGov survey conducted by the New York Times and published last year found that almost half of kids who had struggled with sleep in the past year had been given melatonin by their parents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has weighed in on melatonin use in kids, stressing that it's a supplement and is therefore not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, one study of 31 popular melatonin supplements found that the actual melatonin content varies widely, from less than half to four times the amount stated on the label, with the biggest variability in chewable tablets — the kind kids are most likely to take. Some of the melatonin products in the study also contained substances that require prescriptions, even though they were sold over the counter.

There's also the potential for harm. There were more than 260,000 accidental pediatric melatonin ingestions reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System between 2012 and 2021 — a 530% increase during the study period. Of those, five children required mechanical ventilation and two died.

The AAP notes that while melatonin plays a role in sleep, it's not a sleeping pill and should be used only after a discussion with a pediatrician and after establishing healthy sleep habits that don't include medication. However, the AAP says that melatonin may be a short-term way to help kids get rest while parents try to establish good bedtime routines, or to help some older children and teens reset their sleep schedules after vacations, summer breaks or other sleep interruptions.

"Most children do not need melatonin to sleep and should instead focus on limiting screen time before bed and improving overall sleep hygiene," Dr. Katie Lockwood, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. "Some children with neurodevelopmental disorders may benefit from melatonin, but they should talk to their health care provider about how to use this supplement."

Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that melatonin is being "overused" by families. "I find that families nowadays want a quick fix for everything," she says. "The quick fix is to give your kid a pill to go to sleep. Do most kids need that? No, they need sleep hygiene, and that's tough. It's much easier to take a pill."

The takeaway

Doctors say families need to focus more on good sleep hygiene. Fisher says constant exposure to screens and a fast pace of life make it tough for kids to wind down for bed, and as a result they may have trouble getting to sleep. "It's much better to build healthy sleep habits — stop doing screens before bed [and instead] read, write, draw or do quieter activities. Those are the best ways to prepare your mind and body for sleep," she says.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine specifically suggests that parents do the following to build good sleep habits:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, in which your child goes to bed and wakes up at the same time every day, including on weekends.

  • Reduce exposure to screens at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.

  • Develop a relaxing nighttime routine, which may include a warm bath or shower, journaling or reading before bed.

Fisher says parents shouldn't think that melatonin cannot be used — it should just be used sparingly, and under the guidance of a medical professional. "Some people may benefit from it," she says. "But right now it's being overused."

This article was originally published on Sept. 7, 2023 and has been updated.