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New study urges research, caution when giving kids melatonin

A study out of CU Boulder found nearly one in five school-aged kids and preteens take melatonin for sleep – some parents are also giving the hormone to preschoolers.

BOULDER, Colo. — Parents are routinely giving their children, preteens and sometimes even preschoolers the dietary supplement melatonin to help them sleep, shows new research from the University of Colorado Boulder

The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics Nov. 13 and reveals nearly one in five school-aged children take melatonin for sleep. The body produces melatonin naturally in the pineal gland and it regulates your circadian rhythm, signaling you when it is time to sleep. 

Many countries consider melatonin a drug and it's only available by a prescription, but in the U.S. the chemically synthesized or animal-derived melatonin is sold as a dietary supplement over the counter and is increasingly available in child-friendly gummies. 

“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.”

At the beginning of 2023, the study surveyed about 1,000 parents to get a sense of how many children are being given melatonin for sleep. 

The researchers found that in the past 30 days, the following percentage of children had taken melatonin:

  • Almost 20% of preteens ages 10 to 13 
  • 19% of children ages 5 to 9 
  • 6% of preschoolers ages 1 to 4

The length of time children used the supplement varied with age – younger preschoolers had taken it for a year, older grade-schoolers and preteens between 18-21 months. 

Researchers also highlighted a study published in April that analyzed 25 gummy products and found varying amounts of melatonin that differed from what the label indicated. One of the products had more than three times the amount on the label and one had no melatonin at all. Some of the supplements showed "concerning substances like serotonin."

“Parents may not actually know what they are giving to their children when administering these supplements,” said Hartstein.


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