Getting children to go to sleep can be a challenge for any parent. Some people might reach for a melatonin supplement, but it's not always the best option.
"We don't consider it safe among children under 3 unless in specific circumstances," said Dr. Pamela Villar, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente.
Melatonin is made by the human body, but can be bought as an over-the-counter supplement in synthetic or natural form. Many parents don't know about the possible dangers, though, according to pediatricians. Some parents say when their children couldn't sleep, they started considering all their options.
"My son was 11 months old when he finally slept six hours straight on his own," said Sarah Hennessy, a mother. "In that state of sleep deprivation, any suggestions that come my way are considered very strongly."
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
Dr. Villar says giving melatonin to a child can have long-term effects, even ones we might not know about yet.
"Those hormones affect not only your circadian rhythm, but other cells and other processes in your body," Dr. Villar said. "We don't have enough studies in humans to know how it could affect other processes."
That's why parents are encouraged to only use it as a short-term solution and in conjunction with a behavioral sleep plan. Thankfully, there are some easy things parents can try for their young children.
"Stick to a relaxing, fun routine for bedtime," said Paulina Delgado, a pediatric sleep consultant. "Design a routine where the kid is involved and happy."
Ideally that routine involves a dark room and no electronics for at least two hours before bedtime. That means parents need a lot of patience as their child's body learns to produce and regulate its own melatonin supply.
"If we give them something external and supplement them with this hormone they naturally make, the process can get disrupted," said Delgado. "Then more sleep problems can arise."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warns that as more adults take melatonin, it's easier for children to find and accidentally take it. Most calls to poison control centers about melatonin were for children under the age of 5 who accidentally ingested it.