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Babes in Dreamland

Jamie Lund and Rachel Henderson struggled with the same bewildering phenomenon every night: Their children suddenly stopped sleeping. 

For Lund, the cause was obvious. Her 6-year-old daughter recently started taking stimulant medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and consequently developed insomnia (a common side effect from the drug Methadate).

Henderson, on the other hand, was not medicating her son Zach, but he has been diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which can also cause sleep disturbances. Although he started therapy at a young age, as he got older, the 5-year-old became more aggressive and refused to sleep—even rummaging for food at 3 a.m.

Neither of the moms wanted to give their children a prescription sleeping pill, yet they were both desperate for help—and rest. Eventually, with their pediatricians’ approval, they turned to melatonin, a dietary supplement (similar to a vitamin) that is considered controversial for its use in children (it has not been evaluated by the FDA for safety, effectiveness or purity).

Almost immediately, Henderson noticed an improvement. “He went from being up all night to a heavy sleeper,” she says, and notes that she has been giving Zach melatonin nightly since March. “He used to be irritable and wanted to eat constantly. Now he functions much better.”

Melatonin, a hormone that is synthesized in the body by the pineal gland, helps regulate circadian rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle. Synthetic melatonin, commonly known as “the pill adults pop to ward off jet lag,” is available over-the-counter to aid sleep in those who are not producing enough of the hormone on their own. It is the only hormone available in the United States without a prescription.

Like Henderson and Lund, parents who have tried it say that it has been nothing short of miraculous in getting their children to sleep (without adverse effects). It's a trend that is occurring despite the product’s label, which warns against the use of melatonin in children.

The safety of long-term use (more than four weeks) in children has not been studied to date and remains unclear.

According to Dallas Pediatrician Dr. Sue Hubbard, about 15-25 percent of the pediatric population grapples with sleep problems (both getting to sleep and staying asleep).

Hubbard asserts that the short-term use of melatonin, both to help children fall asleep and for children who wake frequently, has been studied extensively.

No serious safety concerns were noted in an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) review on melatonin in a Complementary, Holistic and Integrative Medicine: Melatonin report published in 2009.

There is good data to show that melatonin may be safe and effective for managing sleep disorders in children,” says Hubbard. And, it’s not just used to remedy secondary sleep difficulties (occurring with medical, neurological or substance misuse disorders) in children with conditions such as autism, developmental delays and ADHD, like Tatiana. It’s also effective at treating primary sleep issues (that can’t be attributed to disease, mental disorders or medications), states Hubbard.

She adds that, “Many pediatricians are comfortable recommending melatonin for indefinite periods of time, as it is a naturally occurring substance.”

The AAP states that melatonin is “generally recognized as safe” in the United States and Canada in children who do not have contraindicated conditions or medications at doses between 0.5 and 7.5 mg before bedtime. It may be used for days and weeks without problems at varying dosages, offers Hubbard.

She cautions that parents should carefully evaluate the potential risks versus benefit of melatonin, in context with the child’s overall health, with a pediatrician. It should not be used in children with an underlying seizure disorder.

The AAP review highlights the common plight of insomnia in children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, calling it “troubling.” In one study, sleep problems were reported in 29 percent of affected children receiving long-term stimulant medication, 19 percent of children not receiving stimulant medication and 6 percent of children who did not have ADHD.

For parents like Lund, while melatonin might not help treat ADHD symptoms, it’s given them back their happy child.

Melatonin “truly helps Tatiana get the sleep she needs till this day,” says Lund. “She is not cranky; she is pleasant and does a lot better with [the right amount of] rest.”