How many nights did I spend trying to rock, sing or otherwise soothe my fist-born to sleep, thinking to myself, “If only there was some magic pill I could give him.”
Obviously, the “magic” part of that statement was the key component, since we’re all rational enough not to slip our kids a Benadryl in order to sedate them.
In reality though, there was no way I was about to give my child a pill in order to get a solid night’s sleep out of him. Even if such a thing existed, I knew it would just be a Band-Aid, and not a functional, permanent solution to his sleep issues.
Which is why I’m so surprised to hear about the recent surge in parents giving their kids melatonin.
I’ll get into my personal thoughts on it in a minute here, but first, here’s the lowdown.
Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies produce naturally when we’re getting ready to sleep. It helps to regulate our circadian rhythms and make us feel tired when it’s time to sleep.
It was first discovered in 1950 and the synthetic form of it has been available over the counter since 1994. It’s been tested for its ability to treat a wide range of afflictions such as IBS, migraines, tinnitus, asthma, and hypertension, with varying degrees of success.
On the plus side, it’s good at its job. It helps people to reset their internal clocks and does so with relatively few side effects. (That we know of, anyways.)
It’s not a narcotic, like sleeping pills, so you don’t have to worry about overdosing or next-day grogginess, and it’s got a good track record. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, says she has found melatonin to be safe in healthy children when used for short periods under the supervision of a pediatrician.
On the flip side of the argument, melatonin is NOT regulated by the FDA, and therefore lacks the regulation and oversight that is applied to things like analgesics and cough syrup, which means you might not be getting what you pay for. (In many parts of Europe, including the UK, it requires a prescription.)
There’s also a possibility that it might cause delayed puberty or development in children who take it over a prolonged period, according to a study done at UC Berkeley.
On top of that, we’re consuming a ton of it. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, melatonin sales went from $90 million in 2007 to a whopping $260 million in 2012. Stuart Ditchek, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, told the Wall Street Journal, “I’ve never seen such widespread abuse of any drug or therapy in all my years of practice.”
So, much like any “it” drug, it’s got its supporters and its detractors.
My personal issue with melatonin is that giving it to kids who aren’t sleeping well is the equivalent to giving Tylenol to someone with a broken leg.
You may alleviate the symptoms, but you’re not actually fixing the problem.
I’m not inherently opposed to medication by any means. My kids have had their fair share of baby aspirin and cough syrup over the years, but as a solution to a temporary situation.
Bad sleeping habits, unlike a cough or a toothache, won’t just go away with time. Sleeping is a skill that kids need to be taught, and that teaching takes some time, effort and discipline.
I’ve been a children’s sleep consultant for over 12 years now, and I’ve seen families who were so sleep deprived that I was sincerely worried about them. Lack of sleep brings along a plethora of physical, mental, and emotional health issues, so believe me, I understand the appeal of the “silver bullet.”
But where does it end? As is the case with any solution that doesn’t fix the actual problem, sooner or later you’re going to have to pull your finger out of the dyke.
My advice? Do yourself a favor and teach your child how to fall asleep naturally, consistently, and on her own. Otherwise you’re just prolonging the inevitable.
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