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Is melatonin safe for kids? Doctor shares concerns around possible side effects for children.

CDC issues warning on melatonin ER visits
CDC issues warning on uptick in ER visits involving melatonin 01:48

With daylight saving time quickly approaching, many parents are worried about their kids losing an hour of sleep as clocks "spring forward." But are melatonin supplements a safe option to help them sleep?

One study shows 18.5% of children aged 5 to 9 sometimes take melatonin for sleep, and 19% of adolescents as well.

Melatonin "does seem to be safe for short term use," Dr. Céline Gounder, CBS News medical contributor and editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News, said on "CBS Mornings" Friday, But she adds there are a few things to be aware of.

First, it's a hormone. 

"Whenever you're talking about giving kids hormones, you want to be especially careful, especially in kids who are pre-pubescent, so not yet adolescents," Gounder said. She explains there are some indicators that melatonin could trigger an early puberty. 

Secondly, as a supplement, melatonin is not FDA regulated the same way as a drug, which means it doesn't go through the same rigorous testing.

"The rigorous clinical trials that we need for drugs that are FDA approved just haven't been done for melatonin, so we just don't have the same kind of data on the safety and effectiveness of melatonin," she says.

When it comes to research on melatonin and youth, there is more data available on its use for kids with ADHD and autism. Those conditions are often associated with sleep disorders, so there's a different risk-benefit tradeoff compared to other children. Some research has shown melatonin supplement treatment may be useful for patients within these groups — but still only after focusing on sleep hygiene and behavioral interventions.

Generally speaking, Gounder advises proceeding with caution when it comes to kids.

"I would really be cautious about using it in somebody who has not gone through puberty yet and use it, even in teens, on a very occasional basis," she says.

Rise in accidental melatonin ingestion by kids

Another concern? The popular gummy form of the sleep aid can look and taste like candy. And over the last several years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has observed an increase in accidental ingestions of melatonin by kids.

"During 2019-2022, melatonin was implicated in approximately 11,000 (7%) emergency department visits among infants and young children for unsupervised medication ingestions," says a summary posted Thursday of the CDC findings. 

"A lot of it involves the gummies," Gounder noted. "Fortunately, most of them do not end up hospitalized, but some of the signs that this could have been a dangerous ingestion include excessive drowsiness, confusion, hallucinations, seizures. So you can see some real side effects with this."

The CDC says these findings highlight the importance of "keeping all medications and supplements (including gummies) out of children's reach and sight."

"Anytime a med is in the form of a candy or gummy, there's potential for abuse because it tastes delicious, it's colorful, and looks like candy, and kids don't read the label or can't read it," Dr. Heidi Cohen, the emergency room director at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, recently told CBS News Miami

Melatonin alternatives for kids

When your body naturally releases melatonin, it helps regulate your sleep cycle or circadian rhythm. 

"As the sun sets, as lights dim, as it gets later in the day, your melatonin levels go up, telling your body it's time to sleep," Gounder explains. 

She says you can help support this — for yourself and kids — by turning off lights and devices. 

"Those screens, which are blasting lights into your eyes, that can make a big difference," she says.

Cohen suggests taking away all electronics, including phones and TV, at least 30 minutes before bedtime and making sure kids have a dark, quiet and cool place to sleep.

If your little one is still having trouble sleep, she advises talking to a doctor to get to the root of the issue.

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