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Enter Sandman

Posted 3/19/2018 by UHBlog

Before giving your child melatonin, ask us about lifestyle tweaks that can help induce a better night’s sleep.

Sleeping tablets

Melatonin supplements can help regulate sleep patterns in children and adolescents - especially those who are blind, have irregular sleep cycles or have certain neurological or developmental disorders. For other children, however, the answer may be much simpler than chewing melatonin gummies or swallowing a pill.

“Melatonin should never be used as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle,” says pediatric sleep specialist Carol Rosen, MD. “The science shows that healthy children who are keeping a good schedule and have good sleep habits probably don't need melatonin.”

The hormone melatonin, which occurs naturally in the human body and is available as an over-the-counter supplement, helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, known as circadian rhythm. When the sun goes down, the pineal gland produces more melatonin, thus signaling other parts of the brain to ready the body for sleep. Toward daybreak, it produces less melatonin, thus indicating it's time to wake up.

“Melatonin is not very good at sustaining sleep, but it might help with sleep onset,” Dr. Rosen says.

Newborns don't develop their sleeping-through-the-night rhythms until the middle of the first year of life. Instead, they experience shorter sleep cycles and, as any parent can attest, may drift off or awaken at the most inopportune times – often in the middle of the night. Melatonin comes into play about midway through the first year when babies still nap during the day, but save their longer slumber for the nighttime. Toddlers and school-age children generally fall asleep and wake up early while the “body clocks” of adolescents move one to two hours later, making it easier to stay up late.

According to Dr. Rosen, the current science indicates melatonin appears to be safe and has been shown to be helpful in improving sleep in children with certain medical conditions (under the advice of a doctor). Still, she says, there are other ways to help Mr. Sandman bring your kids dreams.

To help your child sleep better through the night, Dr. Rosen recommends:

  1. Limiting light exposure after dinner. Light – whether it comes from a bedside lamp or an iPad – delays the production of melatonin. So, turn off electronic devices and dim the lights as bedtime approaches.
  2. Ensuring your kids get the right amount of shuteye. For optimum health, children need the following minimums of sleep in a 24-hour period:
    • Ages 1 to 2: 11 hours
    • Ages 3 to 5: 10 hours
    • Ages 6 to 12: Nine hours
    • Ages 13 to 18: Eight hours
  3. Establishing a bedtime routine with younger children. Instead of parking little ones in front of a melatonin-zapping video, read them a book, tuck them into bed, give them a kiss and leave the room. The process should be “short and sweet,” Dr. Rosen says.
  4. Maintaining regular sleep patterns. For school-aged children and teens, long chunks of daytime naps mess with sleep cycles. So does staying up late or sleeping until noon on weekends.
    “It's what I ‘social jet lag,’” Dr. Rosen says. “It’s like you’re going to California every weekend and when you come home on Sunday night, you can’t fall asleep.”
    Occasional deviations are okay, but try to discourage your child’s after-school nap or weekend bedtimes and reveilles that vary by more than two hours.
  5. Providing the proper environment. Don’t let kids snooze on the couch or fall asleep with the TV on. They should be in a crib or bed located in a dark and cool bedroom.

Carol Rosen, MD is a pediatric sleep specialist and medical director, Pediatric Sleep Center at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Rosen or any other doctor online.

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