My child often has trouble going to sleep. Based on the advice of another parent, I have started giving her a melatonin supplement. It seems to help, but I wonder if it’s safe.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our brains that helps us fall asleep. It is released at night and stimulated by darkness. If one’s melatonin isn’t doing its job effectively, synthetic melatonin can be purchased over the counter to try to improve sleep. It comes in many forms, including gummies for children.
Studies indicate that it largely works. Some parents give it to their kids to help them overcome insomnia. Doctors, however, recommend that parents seek advice from a pediatrician before prescribing it. One reason is to help ensure that there isn’t a serious physiological cause for the child’s insomnia.
In my experience, insomnia in students seems to be on the rise. Studies published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) show that insomnia may now affect over 20% of school-age kids.
If you grew up in my generation, this may surprise you. We seemed to have the opposite problem. Does anyone remember Vivarin? It was a sketchy, over-the-counter pill to help people remain alert. Our trouble was staying awake, not falling asleep.
Now, let’s see. What could be the difference between our generation and this one? Hmm.
Hey, I just thought of something. Back then we weren’t being constantly besieged by interactive screen activity. I wonder if that could mean anything.
It turns out it does. Apparently the light emitted by electronic devices like tablets and smartphones suppress the brain’s ability to produce melatonin. So if your child is having a hard time getting to sleep, your first order of business might be making him lock up the screens at least an hour before bedtime.
This isn’t just weird, theoretical science. Students frequently tell me how whacked up their sleep schedules are. When I ask them what they are doing when they’re supposed to be asleep, the answer is invariably, “I’m on my phone.”
But what if it isn’t just the light from the phone that helps cause the insomnia? What if it’s the actual content? A 2017 study published in Clinical Psychological Science showed a correlation between screen time and depression in adolescents. A study of high school students by researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia noted that insomnia, anxiety and depression are all strongly connected. You don’t have to be a logician to draw a reasonable inference from that data.
Something else has changed from my generation, however, and that is the pushing of children into higher level classes for which they are emotionally unprepared. Just because a child is good at math doesn’t mean he’s ready to take on high school algebra in the seventh grade, especially if he’s being pressured to perform at an extremely high level. That kind of pressure can lead to stress and overwork, which can lead to sleeplessness.
So the second thing I might do is to calibrate what kind of pressure my child is under from school. If he’s amassing more homework than sleep, it might be time to examine his study methods or his course placement.
“That’s fine,” you might be saying, “but I just want to know if melatonin is safe.” Well, this is still largely unknown. Studies suggest that it probably is, but melatonin supplements have not been approved by the FDA, and scientists are still unsure of their long-term effects. Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, states that “Melatonin actually suppresses some hormones that regulate puberty. So, the concern is that chronic use of melatonin could alter normal pubertal development.”
Because of the uncertainties, many doctors, like Dr. Brent Bauer from the Mayo Clinic, are wary. “Due to the lack of scientific evidence, and because of some potentially harmful side effects,” he says, “melatonin is not recommended as a sleep aid for children and teens. Making lifestyle changes that can enhance healthy sleep is a better alternative for most [adolescents].”
Owens provides another reason for parents to seek behavioral changes for their children before resorting to melatonin. If they don’t, she says, they may be teaching kids that “when you can’t sleep, you pop a pill. And I think that’s a very dangerous message to send.”
It makes one wonder if the shortcut is truly for the child or the parent. See your doctor to make sure you’re making the right decision.
Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody.