Sophia Children's Hospital

News

Only use melatonin on physicians advice

July 23, 2019

As many as one in seventeen young teenagers use the sleeping aid melatonin on a weekly basis to help them sleep better. This is the conclusion of the long-term Generation R population study in Rotterdam. Researchers warn parents to be careful when using melatonin without a physician's advice, because the long-term effects on children are unknown.

About a quarter of children suffer from childhood sleep problems. Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body and has an effect on the biological clock. “It does not cause you to fall asleep immediately, but it does affect the body’s sleep-wake cycle”, says Erasmus MC researcher Elize Koopman-Verhoeff. In many countries, melatonin is freely available over the counter and is used to treat sleep rhythm problems in adults. Also, it is prescribed by physicians for children with autism or ADHD.

Koopman-Verhoeff says: “These figures are quite alarming. One in seventeen young teenagers, six percent, use melatonin. Even after excluding children with autism or ADHD diagnosis from the sample, still one in twenty children, five percent, use melatonin at least once a week over a period of at least six months. It is therefore important that more research is conducted on the long-term effects and use of melatonin in children.”

Previous studies have shown that parents of children with sleep problems sometimes use melatonin to help their children sleep better”, says dr. Annemarie Luik, sleep expert and assistant professor at Erasmus MC. Children who use melatonin often indicate that their sleep is poor or too short. However, melatonin is often taken without a prescription or guidance on dosage and time of administration. Luik says: “If melatonin is used incorrectly it could even worsen sleep. Given the number of children who use this drug and because the unknown long-term effects on children, we advise parents to always consult a physician in the event of sleeping problems and usage of sleep medication including melatonin.”

This study included 871 children from the long-term Generation R population study, with an average age of eleven years. The Generation R project monitors the health of children and their parents in Rotterdam. The parents completed interviews about the sleeping behavior of their eleven-year-olds. The children were asked to keep a sleep diary for nine days and wear a special watch-like device. The watch measured movement and enabled the researchers to estimate when the children were awake and asleep. Erasmus MC researchers published these findings in the scientific journal JAMA Pediatrics this week.

The study has been published online and can be found on the website of the scientific journal JAMA Pediatrics.