Melatonin is a natural hormone produced in the body by the pea-sized gland (pineal gland), located just above the middle of the brain.
Stimulated by darkness, melatonin is normally released in the evening, causing a state of drowsiness and thereby helping to promote sleep. This is the hormone that adjusts our internal clock known as the circadian rhythm.
The pattern of waking during the day when it is light and sleeping at night when it is dark is a natural part of life at any age.
How does melatonin help regulate sleep?
Exposure to light or to darkness is a key factor in the regulation of human sleep. A specific centre in the hypothalamus (the main control centre for the autonomic nervous system) initiates signals to various parts of the brain that control body temperature and other functions causing either sleepiness or wakefulness.
On exposure to first light each day, this special regulating centre begins performing functions like releasing stimulating hormones and raising body temperature. During the day the pineal gland is inactive and therefore daytime levels of melatonin are barely detectable. However, after sundown, melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and stay elevated for about 12 hours, dropping back to daytime levels at about 9am. This raised level causes inertia and makes sleep inviting.
How can you use melatonin to help your children fall asleep naturally?
Creating optimal sleep conditions for babies and children involves curtailing exposure to light as far as possible.
The blue and green lights emitted by computers, smartphones and tablets neutralise the effects of melatonin and must therefore be switched off or not be in the immediate vicinity of a child’s sleeping environment.
Televisions and bright lights must also be avoided.
It is advisable to take children outside at sunset and to ensure that they do not watch or see any screens at this time of day.
What about taking a melatonin supplement?
There are children who suffer from serious sleep disorders, caused by reduced melatonin levels, who may benefit from supplementation.
But children with healthy levels of melatonin don’t need supplementation. Also there’s a lack of clinical research to indicate whether long-term use of melatonin supplements is safe for children. It may be assumed that giving a hormone to a child on a regular basis, over months or sometimes years, would inevitably produce some effect.
In addition, long-term usage of the supplement could result in psychological and even physical dependency. Children may then “need” it in order to fall asleep.
So how do you fix sleep problems?
So, why are an increasing number of parents turning to melatonin supplements to hopefully cure their children’s sleep problems?
It is understandable that stress and exhaustion suffered by parents could be a major factor accelerating this trend. Some parents, often tired and impatient, long to be able to flick a switch for their children to fall asleep.
And those parents working hard to institute satisfactory sleep patterns become frustrated when predictable daily schedules and consistent bedtime routines fail to produce the desired result. Weary of the struggle, they become tempted to try a quick fix like Melatonin.
With the right advice, encouragement and assistance these disheartened parents will recognise that time, patience and support will result in their babies and toddlers learning to sleep through the night and enjoying long restful naps.
I urge parents to take the time and do the work to truly solve their children’s sleep problems.
There are several gentle sleep training techniques available that will comprehensively address the needs of the entire individual child. Harmony and peaceful sleep will ensue when nutrition, environment, routine, disposition, family principles and developmental junctures are assessed.