Melatonin Use Among Children and Preteens Skyrockets

3 min read

Nov. 13, 2023 – More children and preteens are taking melatonin to help them sleep, a new study found, while experts cautioned that parents may be unaware of some risks, particularly with long-term use. 

Melatonin gummies also look like candy, which can be particularly dangerous for young children. 

Melatonin is a hormone, and any effects on puberty remain unclear. The investigators also noted that not all melatonin supplements contain what they say they do – some tested in a separate study contained two to three times the amount of melatonin on the label, and one supplement contained none at all.

A Matter of Timing?

While not completely advising against the sleep supplement, the study researchers pointed out that short-term use is likely safer. 

“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,” lead study author Lauren Hartstein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sleep and Development Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a news release.

“Talk to your child's health care professional before giving your child melatonin,” said Raj Bhui, MD, a sleep medicine specialist and American Academy of Sleep Medicine spokesperson, who was not involved in the study. “If, after weighing potential risks and benefits, melatonin is recommended as the appropriate treatment, they can recommend a dose and timing to treat the sleep issue.”

An Increasing Trend

From 2017 to 2018, only about 1.3% of parents reported their children used melatonin in national data looking at supplement use in children and teenagers. In fact, usage more than doubled in this younger population from 2017 to 2020, another study revealed. “All of a sudden, in 2022, we started noticing a lot of parents telling us that their healthy child was regularly taking melatonin,” Hartstein said.

She and colleagues surveyed the parents of 993 children, ages 1 to less than 14, from January to April 2023. They found about 20% of these school-age children and preteens took melatonin as a sleep aid. The findings, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, also suggest that some parents routinely give their preschool children melatonin.

They found nearly 6% of preschoolers ages 1 to 4 , 18.5% of children ages 5 to 9, and 19.4% of kids ages 10 to 13 had taken melatonin in the previous month. 

The researchers also discovered that many took melatonin for longer than a few nights. Preschool children took the supplement for a median of 1 year, grade school children for a median 18 months, and preteens for 21 months. 

What’s in Your Supplement?

Melatonin supplements, like many other supplements, are not reviewed by the FDA for safety and efficacy. 

In a different study published in April, researchers looked at 25 melatonin gummy products and found that 22 of them contained different amounts of melatonin than listed on the label. In fact, one called Sleep Plus Immune contained more than three times the amount, and with a supplement called Sleep Support, researchers could not detect any melatonin. 

There is a general misconception that supplements are natural and therefore safe, Bhui said. “Multiple investigations of commercially available supplements have shown we cannot assume that what is on the label is in the pill or that what is in the pill is disclosed on the label. Formal laboratory testing has revealed some supplements to be adulterated with unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients, contaminated with microbes, or even tainted with toxins like arsenic, lead, and mercury.”

Choosing a product with the "USP Verified Mark" may give parents some comfort regarding melatonin content and consistency with labeling, Bhui said. Taking steps to safeguard the supply at home is also important in making sure children don't take the supplements by accident. “With the increased use of melatonin, this has been a growing problem.”