07/26/2016 12:34 EDT | Updated 07/26/2016 12:59 EDT

Is Melatonin Safe For Kids?

Mi pequeño soñando

In special needs circles, it has been touted as the miracle sleep cure. But is melatonin actually safe for children? The jury is still out, yet some pediatricians warn against it.

Many people have trouble getting a decent's night sleep, myself included. When I first heard about melatonin, it sounded too good to be true. A pill that would help me ease into the land of nod, and keep me there. And it was natural, to boot. What's the catch, I wondered? Well, seemingly none.

In fact, melatonin was the answer many parents unhesitatingly gave when I complained about my son's wakefulness on autism forums. Though I occasionally take it myself, do I really want to give my child a pill to get him to sleep?

While 25 per cent of children suffer from some form of sleep difficulty, that figure jumps to half for children with special needs, according to the Canadian Sleep Society. But is a supplement really the answer? And are there any long-term side effects we still don't know about?

On the label, melatonin is designed to be used "to overcome jet lag or occasional insomnia," but many people use it every single night. And that's potentially dangerous, particularly when said people are children whose bodies and brains are still developing.

"It's being touted as this magic pill," said Dr. Shelly Weiss, a neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of the Canadian Sleep Society. "There's definitely concern that people are going to use it more widely and not appreciate that their child can learn to sleep better without a hormone being given."

Yes, melatonin is a hormone. And though it occurs naturally in the body, what you buy over the counter is synthetic. So the 'natural' moniker is a bit misleading. Then there is the problem of dosing. Melatonin comes in a range of strengths, and it can be hard to match the amount the body naturally creates. The likelihood is that we are taking much more than we need.

Sleep disturbances can be all too common for children with conditions like autism, cerebral palsy and ADHD, but pediatricians caution against long-term use of the supplement, which can delay development and the onset of puberty.

Yikes. So what's a parent to do? Maybe only use melatonin in cycles, or during particularly bad sleep patches. For now, I'll work hard at boosting sleep habits in our house the 'natural' way -- by sticking to a set schedule, investing in black-out blinds, killing screens two hours before bed, and running a nice bath with Epsom salts.

The bath part isn't essential, but it can't hurt, right?

'Sleep Expert' Alanna McGinn has more great ideas when it comes to getting kids (and their parents) to sleep.

A version of this post was previously published at