For some children with autism, sleep can be rather . . . elusive. Try as they might, they simply cannot fall asleep – or, if they do manage to fall asleep, they wake up just a few hours later, still tired but unable to fall back to sleep. Sadly, these same children often experience behavioral problems because they’re just so exhausted all the time.
In an effort to help their child sleep and reduce the stress and anxiety they are feeling from chronic fatigue, many parents are turning to melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep supplement that is supposed to work with the body’s natural hormones to encourage faster and more restful sleep. Their decision to do so is supported by a small handful of anecdotal studies on children with autism. Also, the lack of serious side effects means they have little to worry about . . . or do they?
While an initial search for side effects on melatonin turn up nothing more than a few minor issues, such as nausea and headaches, parents are still encouraged to exercise caution before giving it to their child. Talk to your doctor, understand the potential risks and benefits, and devise a sleep plan for your child – one that extends well beyond just giving them a pill.
First, there are concerns over the safety of melatonin – not necessarily in and of itself, but more because of how it and other dietary supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They aren’t required to submit testing on their safety or efficacy, and may only be removed from the shelf if a problem is found.
Another issue with melatonin is how it is packaged. Offered in varying doses, sometimes packaged quite differently from one manufacturer to the next, parents run the risk of giving their child too much melatonin at once. Granted, there’s nothing to suggest that an overdose on melatonin is even remotely dangerous, but the known side effects could be miserable to endure.
Use of melatonin over the long-term – especially in children – is also a bit of a controversial matter. While most healthcare professionals say that it should be safe to use for up to two years, there are some concerns that it may alter or disrupt normal hormone development. There are also concerns that it could exacerbate insomnia if taken over the long-term.
Does any of that mean that parents shouldn’t give their child melatonin if they’re on the spectrum and struggling with sleep? Not necessarily. It just means that parents should at least try and avoid giving supplements like melatonin unless they are absolutely necessary. Start with healthy sleep practices, such as turning off devices after dinner and turning the lights down before bedtime.
If all else fails and you come to the realization that melatonin may be your only option for a while, make an appointment with your child’s doctor. Talk to them about side effects and make sure your doctor checks for any potential complications (melatonin can be dangerous if taken with certain medications or by someone with certain health conditions). Discuss dosage and develop a long-term sleep plan that includes eventual weaning away from melatonin. That way, you know there is an end to your child’s reliance on the medication and you reduce the risk of any long-term issues. Lastly, be sure to purchase your melatonin from a reputable source that is “independently” tested.