Melatonin has been widely advertised as a safe, natural way of helping people get to sleep. In a lot of ways, that is absolutely 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. In the simplest terms, melatonin is your brain’s way of drawing the curtains for the night. Cortisol is the opposing hormone, the one that opens the curtains back up. Together, melatonin and cortisol make up a large part of what we call our “body clock".
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.”
You may wonder, how do our bodies know when to start producing melatonin? It's actually a very natural process. When it starts to get dark, the body recognizes the onset of night, and gets the melatonin pumps up and running. As you can imagine, this was much more effective before the light bulb was invented. And the television. And the smart phone. And the laptop. Now, our eyes are flooded with so much artificial light that our brains can have trouble determining when night is actually coming and when to start producing melatonin.
When our bodies aren't producing the appropriate amount of melatonin, it can mess with 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. This will let your body know that it’s time to sleep. (Side note: This is not the case for insomniacs. People with psychological or physical conditions that inhibit their sleep should talk with their physicians.)
Now let's think about kids. After 2 months of age, a baby's body naturally produces melatonin and cortisol. They even start to establish a 24-hour sleep cycle, which is the standard sleep cycle that we follow throughout our lives. Now here is the big question... “Will giving my child melatonin help them sleep through the night?” 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 believe it is extremely important to be fully informed. Melatonin is a hormone and can have serious side effects. Just take a look at WebMD and you will read "There is some concern that melatonin might interfere with development during adolescence. While this still needs to be confirmed, melatonin should be reserved for children with a medical need. There isn't enough evidence to know if melatonin is safe in children when taken by mouth, long-term." Possible side effects listed for adult use are "headache, short-term feelings of depression, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability". I don't know about you, but that is enough for me to avoid it unless medically necessary!
Some adults will tell you that melatonin does get them to sleep quicker and helps them sleep through the night. Do you know what I say to them? Great! Even if it's just a placebo effect for some, they’re getting the sleep they need and that’s important in its own right!
When it comes to kids, though, I feel that it’s essential for us to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. Kids need a LOT of sleep, and for a short period in their lives, everything in their bodies is tuned to help ensure they get it. All they need from us is a little guidance, or possibly to step out of the way! We can guide them in developing the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep on their own.
Just like learning any other skill, it takes practice and time. There is no instant solution, just like there is no supplement that can teach you how to play an instrument, how to ride a bike, or how to do long division. Sleep is a skill. 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. The result will be better than anything you’ll get from a pill and they’ll last a lifetime.