For a time, there was an ad that ran pretty frequently on daytime television for a book called, “The Doctors Book of Home Remedies,” and as a curious kid, I have to admit, I was enthralled.
Use butter on a burn!
Quiet a colicky baby by running the vacuum cleaner!
Swallow a teaspoon of sugar to stop the hiccups!
Bee sting? Use aspirin!
One of the big selling points of cures from books like these is that they’re “natural” solutions. We’re not taking some lab designed chemical to solve the problem. We’re using something that’s readily available in nature. Natural is usually considered to be safe among much of the population.
I should clarify here that I’m not against homeopathy, nor am I anti-pharmaceutical. I feel that health decisions are something that should be carefully considered by the individual with the advice of their medical doctor. If probiotics will improve your gut health, then yes please. If you need serious medication to lower your cholesterol, then follow your doctor’s directives. But anything that you’re going to put in your body, and your child’s body, should be evaluated for its efficacy and possible side effects, which is why I think we should take a look at melatonin supplements.
Melatonin has been touted by a lot of homeopathic experts as a safe, natural way of helping people get to sleep. Knowing the purpose of melatonin, that 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.
The Scoop on Melatonin
What is melatonin specifically? It 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 your pineal gland does that is a very complicated process and involves more biology that I can possibly hope to understand, much less explain. But let’s just say that your pineal gland does its job very well, when you give it the opportunity to.
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,” which we will get to in a bit.
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 [before bedtime] it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
Light is the Key
How does our body know when to start producing melatonin? It uses light. Or the lack thereof. When your environment starts to get dark, the body recognizes the onset of night, and gets the melatonin pumps up and running. That worked perfectly for centuries, until we invented the light bulb. And the television. And the smart phone. And the laptop. See where I’m going with this?
Nowadays, our eyes are flooded with so much artificial light that it can be difficult for our brains to determine when night is actually happening, 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 culprits of throwing the body clock off-kilter, 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. Additionally, women who are pregnant also commonly deal with sleep issues and want to know if taking melatonin is safe to take. There is a great write up on Mom Loves Best for women who are pregnant curious about taking melatonin supplements while pregnant.
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 much of the leg work for you. Side note: This is not the case for diagnosed insomniacs. People with psychological or physical conditions that inhibit their sleep should work with their physicians to help them overcome their sleep challenges.
Kids & Melatonin
Newborns are something of an exception, as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they’re about 2 months of age. Until then, they’re kind of winging it, sleep-wise, as I’m sure you probably already know if you have any of your own. But after your child turns eight weeks old, 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 fall asleep at night, but it will not help them stay asleep.
This is the general consensus of sleep specialists, 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 [long-term] benefit of melatonin.”
It is very important to be informed about all sides though. 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 yet established.
To reiterate, I am not in any way against homeopathic or naturopathic medicine. Even in cases where the effects are mental, 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, that’s not a problem. They’re getting the sleep they need and that’s vitally important as it is.
But when it comes to children and teens, 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 peas and carrots. They need a LOT of sleep, and for a short period on 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.
What Do I Do?
My blog is full of different posts with sleep tips and how to help your child sleep well, so go to the search bar and type in your query and you’ll get some answers! The bottom line, 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 hold a pencil, teach you how to drive a car, or learn to swim.
Sleep is exactly the same thing. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, and once it is established, 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 ways 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.
If yours or your child's sleep struggles go beyond needing to make some small changes, or you feel like you've tried everything and going the supplement/medication route is feeling like your only remaining option, let's talk. Let me learn more about what's happening and see if there is something that we can do to help bring restful sleep back to your home.
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.