Study Finds Nearly One in Five School-Aged Children Take Melatonin Supplements

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According to new research, one in five school-aged children and preteens now take melatonin to sleep, and some parents routinely give the hormone to preschoolers. As use of the supplement increases, the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, calls attention to a lack of research and regulation on melatonin products for children.

The study explained that melatonin, a hormone generated by the pineal gland, plays a crucial role in signaling sleep onset and managing the body's 24-hour circadian rhythm. While several nations classify melatonin as a prescription drug, in the United States, melatonin is categorized as a dietary supplement and is available over the counter. Melatonin is either chemically synthesized or derived from animal sources. Today, melatonin supplements are widespread and offered in a range of products, including forms like child-friendly gummies.

In this investigation, Lauren Harstein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sleep and Development Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and her colleagues sought to estimate the use of melatonin among kids.

According to previous research, from 2017 through 2018, only about 1.3 percent of U.S. parents reported melatonin use in their children. However, a 2023 survey by Harstein and her team, involving around 1,000 parents, revealed a significant increase. They found that 18.5 percent of children aged five to nine and 19.4 percent of those aged ten to 13 had used melatonin in the 30 days prior to the survey. Additionally, survey data revealed that six percent of preschoolers aged one to four also used the supplement.

The duration of use varied with age: preschoolers typically had been using melatonin for a median of one year, while grade-schoolers and preteens had median usage durations of 18 and 21 months, respectively.

The researchers also found that dosages increased with age. The data showed preschoolers took between 0.25 and 2 milligrams (mg), while preteens' doses reached 10 mg.

"We hope this paper raises awareness for parents and clinicians and sounds the alarm for the scientific community," said lead author Lauren Hartstein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sleep and Development Lab at CU Boulder. "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."

Although melatonin is typically well-tolerated, co-author Julie Boergers, PhD, a psychologist and pediatric sleep specialist at Rhode Island Hospital and the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, said practitioners should always be careful when prescribing any medication or supplement to young people whose bodies are still developing.

Additionally, the authors noted that past research suggests due to a lack of regulation, many melatonin products contain different amounts of melatonin than the labels indicate, with some supplements containing three times the amount listed on the bottle.

To Hartstein, these results highlight the need for more regulation around melatonin and other dietary supplements and caution when prescribing the supplement, particularly to children.

"If this many kids are taking melatonin, that suggests there are a lot of underlying sleep issues out there that need to be addressed," Hartstein said. "Addressing the symptom doesn't necessarily address the cause."