Melatonin has been touted by a lot of homeopathic experts as a safe, natural way of helping people get to sleep, and in a lot of ways, that is actually very true, but there’s a whole lot more to understand about it before you take it yourself or give it to your child. So what is it, exactly?
Well, melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted from the pineal gland that helps to settle your body and mind down when it’s time to sleep. How exactly it does that is a very complicated process and involves more biology that I can possibly hope to understand, much less explain. So in the simplest terms, melatonin is your brain’s way of drawing the curtains for the night. Cortisol is its counterpart, which opens them back up, and the two together make up a large part of what we call our “body clock,” but more on that later.
An important point here is that melatonin is not a traditional sleep aid. As Dr. Luis Buenaver, a sleep expert from Johns Hopkins explains it, “Your body produces melatonin naturally. It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.” How does our body know when to start producing melatonin? Quite naturally, actually. When it starts to get dark, the body recognizes the onset of night, and gets the melatonin pumps up and running. That worked like a charm for a couple of hundred thousand years, until we invented the light bulb. And the television. And the smart phone. And the laptop. Nowadays our eyes are flooded with so much artificial light that it can be difficult for our brains to determine when night is actually coming on, and it can interfere with melatonin production. That can mess up our body clocks and contribute to insomnia. Now, in some cases, jet-lag and shift work being the biggest two, a melatonin supplement can help reset our body clocks if they’ve been thrown out of whack, but it’s not a solution to sleep issues.
My first piece of advice to people who are having trouble sleeping is to turn off their screens a couple of hours before bed, turn down the house lights, and come up with a bedtime routine. Let your body know that it’s time to sleep, and it’ll do almost all of the leg work for you. Side note: This is not the case for insomniacs. People with psychological or physical conditions that inhibit their sleep should definitely consult with their physicians.
Now, when it comes to kids, all of this information still applies. Newborns are something of an exception, as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they’re about 2 months old. Until then, they’re kind of flying by the seat of their pants, sleep-wise, as I’m sure you probably already know if you have any of your own. But past the 2 month mark, they start to establish a 24 hour light-dark sleep cycle, which is the standard sleep cycle that we follow throughout our lives.
So now we get to the big question... “Will giving my child melatonin help them sleep through the night?” And the answer is, “No it will not.” It might help them GET to sleep at night, but it will not help them stay asleep. This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. This is the general consensus of sleep specialist, researchers, and doctors worldwide. The National Sleep Foundation has found that, “...when scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a “sleeping pill” to a placebo (sugar pill) most studies show no benefit of melatonin.” I do think being fully informed is important, of course. Melatonin is a hormone and can have serious side effects. There have also been studies that showed early sexual development in animal subjects given melatonin, but the link in human children hasn’t been established.
Again, I am not in any way against homeopathic or naturopathic medicine. Even in cases where the effects are psychological, and for some people, melatonin does indeed get them to sleep quicker and help them sleep through the night. If it’s just a placebo effect for some of them, no biggie. They’re getting the sleep they need and that’s vitally important in its own right.
But when it comes to young kids, I feel that it’s essential for us as parents to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. And here’s the good news. Kids and sleep go together like biscuits and gravy. They need a LOT of sleep, and for a short period of their lives, everything in their bodies is tuned to help ensure they get it. All they need from us is a little guidance and a determination to step out of the way sometimes so they can develop the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep on their own. You can check out some of my other blog posts for tips on how to teach independent sleep skills, since this is already getting a little wordy, but giving them any kind of sleep aid is definitely not the answer, whether it’s melatonin or Benadryl.
Just like learning any other skill, it takes practice and time. There’s no supplement that can teach you how to play an instrument, teach you long division, or sharpen your golf game. Sleep is, in essence, exactly the same thing. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, and once it is, it comes easily and naturally, so before you reach for the pills, try establishing a predictable, consistent bedtime routine, shutting down the TVs and tablets a couple of hours before bed, and encouraging your child to fall asleep without feeding, rocking, or other forms of outside help. I promise you, the results will be better than anything you’ll get from a pill, and they’ll last them a lifetime.