Melatonin Helps Autistic Kids Sleep
Study Shows No Side Effects From Low-Dose Supplements of Melatonin
WebMD News Archive
Oct. 12, 2009 (Baltimore) -- Low doses of melatonin may help children with autism get a better night's
rest, researchers report.
Eleven youngsters with autism ages 4 to 10 fell asleep more quickly and
slept longer when given low-dose supplements of melatonin, says Beth Malow, MD, director
of the Sleep Disorders Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
The supplements didn't appear to cause any side effects, suggesting parents
can continue to give them to their kids as long as needed, she tells WebMD.
Studies have shown that as many as 70% of children with autism suffer from
sleep problems, according to Andrew Zimmerman, MD, of the Kennedy Krieger
Institute in Baltimore, who specializes in treating
Other research points to a deficiency of melatonin -- the body's natural
sleep hormone -- as the culprit, Malow says. Secreted at night by the pineal
gland in the brain, melatonin is thought to
control sleep cycles, which are frequently disturbed in the elderly -- and kids
with autism, she says.
Importance of Good Sleep Habits
To determine whether supplemental melatonin can overcome the problem, Malow
and colleagues are studying children with autism who toss and turn for at least
30 minutes a night, three nights a week, before falling asleep.
In the ongoing study, parents go through an educational program on good
sleep habits. They're taught to make sure their offspring maintain a bedtime
routine, going to bed at the same time every night, for example. And if
youngsters do get up in the middle of the night, parents are told to tuck them
back into their own beds, not let them slip under the covers between mom and
Then, the children are given melatonin in liquid form, a half hour before
bedtime, every night. Doses are increased every three weeks until the
youngsters can fall asleep within 30 minutes of bedtime at least five nights a
"We give it as a liquid because not all children with autism can swallow
pills easily," Malow says.
So far, 11 kids have completed the first, four-month phase of the study.
After 16 weeks of supplementation, the average time it took for them to fall
asleep dropped from 38 minutes to 22 minutes.
One milligram a night did the trick for three of the 11 youngsters, Malow
says. Six required 3 milligrams, and only two children needed 6 milligrams, she
They also slept longer, and parents reported they had less trouble getting
their kids to agree to go to sleep, Malow reports.
Additionally, the children exhibited fewer of the compulsive and ritualistic
behaviors that can accompany autism, she says.
The findings were presented here at the annual meeting of the American
Synchronizing Natural Sleep Patterns
While there have been reports of bed-wetting, seizures, and daytime
drowsiness among children given melatonin supplements, "we didn't see any of
those problems. These are relatively small doses and they seem benign," Malow