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Melatonin Warning for Children’s Sleep

Sleep researchers at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute are warning doctors and parents not to provide the drug melatonin to children to help control their sleep problems.

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the body with the onset of darkness. It plays an important role in people’s circadian rhythms, such as the timing of sleep onset, as well as other biological processes.

In research published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, Prof David Kennaway has warned that providing melatonin supplements to children may lead to serious side-effects when the children are older.

“The use of melatonin as a drug for the treatment of sleep disorders for children is increasing, and this is rather alarming,” Kennaway says. “Melatonin is registered in Australia as a treatment for primary insomnia only for people aged 55 years and over, but it’s easily prescribed as an ‘off label’ treatment for sleep disorders for children.”

Kennaway says that melatonin causes changes in several physiological systems, including cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems, as well as reproduction in animals. “The word ‘safe’ is used very freely and loosely with this drug, but there have been no rigorous, long-term safety studies of the use of melatonin to treat sleep disorders in children and adolescents,” Kennaway says. “There is also the potential for melatonin to interact with other drugs commonly prescribed for children, but it’s difficult to know without clinical trials assessing its safety.

“Considering the small advances melatonin provides to the timing of sleep, and considering what we know about how melatonin works in the body, it is not worth the risk to child and adolescent safety,” he says.