NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next The world and everything in it: Children sleeping.
For many families, bedtime is a daily struggle to help children relax. And now many parents are switching to melatonin. But some experts say there are underlying issues that need to be addressed first. World Reporter Juliana Chan Erikson has the story.
JULIANA CHAN ERIKSON: A new study was published last month in JAMA Pediatrics reports that one in five children today take melatonin to help them sleep. In some cases, 1-year-olds have been known to take supplements. They are often sold over the counter as flavored chewing gum.
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And while doctors say melatonin is generally safe to give to children, there are still many questions about the hormones’ effects.
Humans produce melatonin naturally. It is a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles. We tend to produce more of it at night when it’s dark, and it sends signals to the rest of the body saying it’s time to go to sleep. Some people do not produce enough melatonin, and others work night shifts or travel a lot.
So in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies offered a solution in the form of a synthetic form of melatonin that you could buy over the counter.
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Researchers still don’t fully understand how safe it is for children. And because it’s considered a supplement and not a drug, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t strictly regulate melatonin like other drugs.
Rosemary Stein, a pediatrician in North Carolina, says she sometimes prescribes melatonin for her young patients.
STEIN: If it’s something temporary, melatonin helps.
Stein has worked with thousands of young patients over the past 24 years and said that because of their developing brains, children and teenagers need more sleep than adults. But Stein says that kids and teens today don’t get enough eye contact.
STEIN: Insomnia is a constant problem with children, it’s increased compared to what I had, say 30 years ago or even 10 years ago. And I think a lot of this is environmental.
When Stein talks about the environment, she refers to busy schedules, less downtime, more noise at night, and more electronic screens at home.
STEIN: Kids have electronic devices all the time, so it distracts them. But it also stimulates your brain so that it has a harder time achieving sleep, especially REM sleep.
Computer screens produce blue light, which some believe can inhibit a person’s melatonin production. Karen Winter, a certified pediatric sleep specialist in Wisconsin, says that means screen time before bed isn’t a good idea.
WINTER: I think many families are very dependent on screens, TV, iPads and use it late at night, which affects the onset of sleep. Blue light greatly affects the onset of sleep. So I think that’s why we’re actually seeing a lot more tired kids who can’t fall asleep easily because they’re so affected by blue light.
He doesn’t recommend melatonin because he worries there are too many unknowns.
A study published in April found that 22 of 25 brands the researchers used did not report the exact amount of melatonin. One brand had more than three times more melatonin on its label. The other had none at all.
So what helps a child sleep? Stein and Winter both say the biggest difference isn’t the actual bedtime routine, but what families do before.
Winter works with children ages 2 to 7, and she says that for the preschool set, that might mean giving up midday naps and creating sticker charts for those who sleep the longest in their beds. For older children, that may mean less time on electronic devices and more time reading books.
And for some who find it impossible to sleep, that might mean melatonin. Stein prescribes it for kids who are struggling. But he doesn’t do it often because he says it’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
Ultimately, she says, helping children rest.
STEIN: So at 8:30 you’re in bed, reading a book, telling a story, saying a prayer, resting, thanking God for this great day. And then your day is over, then the child understands, okay, I can find rest.
Report to WORLD, I’m Juliana Chan Erikson.
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