- Nearly 20 percent of school-aged kids take the hormonal sleep aid
- Experts are concerned, however, over the lack of research into long-term effects
- READ MORE: Nearly HALF of parents have given children under 13 melatonin
Nearly 20 percent of five- to 13-year-olds take the sleep aid melatonin, ballooning from just one percent six years ago and causing scientists to ‘sound the alarm’ over its increasing usage.
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder analyzed data from 993 children from one to 13 years old and found use of the hormone significantly increased with age.
Overall, in the previous 30 days, approximately 39 percent of kids included in the story had consumed melatonin, a hormone produced naturally in the body that plays a role in sleep.
The prevalence of melatonin consumption was highest among 10- to 13-year-olds, with parents reporting 19.4 percent had taken melatonin. Prevalence was second highest in kids aged five to nine, with parents reporting 18.5 percent had taken the sleep aid in the previous 30 days.
Lead author Dr Lauren Hartstein, fellow in the Sleep and Development Lab at CU Boulder, said: ‘We hope this paper raises awareness for parents and clinicians, and sounds the alarm for the scientific community.
‘We are not saying that melatonin is necessarily harmful to children. But much more research needs to be done before we can state with confidence that it is safe for kids to be taking long-term.’
The above graph shows the use of melatonin in kids one to 13 years old in the previous 30 days
In the US, melatonin supplements are available for purchase over the counter as a dietary supplement – including in child-friendly gummies – without a prescription
The smallest share of parents reporting consumption were those of kids aged one to four years old – at 5.6 percent.
The UC Boulder team reported that in a 2017-2018 study, just 1.3 percent of US parents reported their child/children consumed melatonin in the previous 30 days.
Sales of the supplement doubled in the US between 2017 and 2020.
The brain produces melatonin in response to darkness and helps regulate the body’s internal clock, signaling to the body it is time to sleep
In many countries, the hormone is classified as a drug and only available as a prescription from a doctor.
However, in the US, melatonin supplements are available for purchase over the counter as a dietary supplement – including in child-friendly gummies – without a prescription and can be used as a sleep aid for people who have trouble falling and staying asleep.
Hartstein said: ‘If this many kids are taking melatonin, that suggests there are a lot of underlying sleep issues out there that need to be addressed. Addressing the symptom doesn’t necessarily address the cause.’
The UC Boulder team found the typical days per week of melatonin use were highest among kids aged one to four years old, at five days per week. Ten- to 13-year-olds reported use three days per week.
The number of days per week of melatonin consumption was lowest in kids aged five to nine – two.
The smallest share of parents reporting melatonin consumption were those of kids aged one to four – at 5.6 percent.
The UC Boulder team found the typical days per week of melatonin use were highest among kids aged one to four years old, at five days per week
Research has deemed melatonin supplements as generally safe for short-term use. Mild side effects include headache, dizziness, nausea an drowsiness.
Some scientists have raised concerns that giving melatonin to young children whose brains and bodies are still growing could interfere with their development and the timing of puberty onset.
However, research is lacking on the long-term safety of melatonin use in children and the few small studies that have been conducted on this matter have yielded inconsistent results.
Melatonin dietary supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning there is no oversight as to the actual amount of melatonin in each pill.
In a separate study from April analyzing 25 commercial supplements of the hormone, actual melatonin quantity ranged from 74 percent to 347 percent of the labeled content.
Hartstein said: ‘Parents may not actually know what they are giving to their children when administering these supplements.’
Additionally, the increasing availability of the supplement in gummy form resembling and tasting like candy raises the risk of children accidentally ingesting the hormone at unsafe levels.
The authors noted from 2012 to 2021, reports of melatonin ingestion to poison control centers increased 530 percent, largely occurring in children under five years old, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
More than 94 percent of cases were unintentional and 85 percent were asymptomatic.
Co-author Dr Julie Boergers, a psychologist and pediatric sleep specialist, said when used under the supervision of a doctor, melatonin can be useful as a short-term sleep aid, particularly in kids with autism or severe sleep problems.
She added: ‘But it is almost never a first-line treatment. Although it’s typically well-tolerated, whenever we’re using any kind of medication or supplement in a young, developing body we want to exercise caution.’
Dr Boergers said she often recommends families look to behavioral changes first and use melatonin only temporarily.