A look at sleep aids for children

Sleep aids for children of various types have become popular in recent decades. But do these sleep aids work? And, more importantly, is it a good idea to use them?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, especially if you’re looking for a simple yes or no. In fact, if you search the Internet looking for sleep aids for children, don’t be surprised if your results come up short on actual sleep aids. In fact, you’re more likely to find arguments against using sleep aids for children than recommendations on what to use.

All the same, we can draw some conclusions about sleep aids for children based on recent research and expert opinions from reputable sources.

Sleep aids for children: Melatonin

One of the most popular and frequently prescribed sleep aids for children is melatonin, a hormone that occurs naturally but which is also created synthetically for medical purposes. It’s often used by adults for jet lag and other minor sleep troubles, and according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Medline Plus website, it’s also used for “sleep problems in children with developmental disorders including autism, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disabilities.”1

Melatonin has a good safety record “not only with special needs children but with healthy children as well” when used for short periods with a pediatrician’s oversight,” according to an essay published in The Wall Street Journal.2

However, that same article points out the growing concern among doctors that melatonin is being used more than it should.

“I’ve never seen such widespread abuse of any drug or therapy in all my years of practice,” Stuart Ditchek states in the WSJ article. A clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the New York University School of Medicine, Ditchek believes that melatonin “should only be used for the most serious sleep and neurological disorders.”

Sleep aids for children: Media & TV

Using TV to fall asleep is another common sleep aid for children. But this sleep aid isn’t a drug, and doesn’t require a prescription. Instead, it’s a lifestyle habit that many children (particularly adolescents) have developed.

In a 2006 study published in the UK’s Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 36.7 percent of adolescents “reported watching television to help them fall asleep.” Another 28.2 percent of the boys surveyed (and 14.7 percent of the girls) reported using computer games for the same reason. And music was reported by a whopping 60.2 percent of the adolescent respondents. About half reported reading books as a sleep aid.3

That seems common enough, and even fairly harmless — after all, many adults would probably also report using music to drift off to bed. The consequences, though, show that it’s probably not a good idea, particularly for parents trying to instill healthy, long-term sleeping habits in their children.

“Except for reading books, using media as a sleep aid is negatively related to respondents’ time to bed on weekdays, their number of hours of sleep per week and their self-reported level of tiredness,” the report concluded. “Those who reported using music, television, and computer games more often as a sleeping aid slept fewer hours and were significantly more tired.”

Sleep aids for children: The natural solution

Granted, these are just two sleep aids among many. Nonetheless, the consensus among many experts is that the best sleep aids for children aren’t drugs or medication, but natural solutions.

“As soon as our own son started asking for the ‘magic’ pill, my husband and I stopped giving it to him,” The Wall Street Journal author concludes in her article about melatonin. “Two years later, he still suffers from occasional insomnia.2

“But whenever I get frustrated, I think back to what Dr. Ditchek told me. ‘Giving your healthy child a pill to fall sleep is sending him the wrong message — that he needs a pill to do what should come naturally.’”

Think of the kinds of lifestyle solutions we often recommend as first-line treatments for sleep apnea — maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, sticking to a regular sleep schedule — and apply that kind of thinking to your child’s sleep routine.

Start with a focus on sticking to a set bedtime, cutting out caffeine later in the day and getting exercise. For more tips on natural and lifestyle-oriented sleep aids for children, check out this article at NaturalSleep.org.

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

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