Popular sleep aid should not be given to children, say researchers

Popular sleep aid should not be given to children, say researchers
Popular sleep aid should not be given to children, say researchers

Parents and doctors should not give melatonin to children as a treatment for sleep problems, say researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia. The study was published as a paper in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Melatonin is a hormone that the body produces at the onset of darkness which plays a vital role in regulating certain body functions. The hormone fine tunes the body’s circadian rythyms such as the time of the onset of sleep and other biological processes. Professor David Kennaway, head of the Circadian Physiology Laboratory at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute warns that giving children melatonin supplements could cause serious side effects when the children were older. Kennaway has been researching melatonin for the past 40 years.

“The use of melatonin as a drug for the treatment of sleep disorders for children is increasing and this is rather alarming,” Professor Kennaway said. “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.” Previous laboratory studies have shown extensive evidence that melatonin causes changes in numerous physiological systems, including the immune, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems as well as reproduction in animals.

“Melatonin is also a registered veterinary drug which is used for changing the seasonal patterns of sheep and goats, so they are more productive for industry. If doctors told parents that information before prescribing the drug to their children, I’m sure most would think twice about giving it to their child,” Kennaway said. “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 that there is also a potential for melatonin to interact with other drugs that are commonly prescribed for children, but these concerns have mostly been ignored throughout the world. He stated that clinical trials are needed to assess the safety of the drug.

“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 said.


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