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Research shows a big increase in children taking melatonin

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More parents are turning to melatonin when their kids can't get to sleep, and pediatricians say that's alarming. Here's NPR's Maria Godoy.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Lauren Hartstein is a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder. She studies sleep in early childhood.

LAUREN HARTSTEIN: All of a sudden, last year, we noticed that there was a big uptick in the number of parents who were regularly giving them melatonin.

GODOY: Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. It's also sold as a dietary supplement. Harstein and her colleagues surveyed the parents of nearly 1,000 children between the ages of 1 to 14, and were surprised by how many kids were using it.

HARTSTEIN: Nearly 6% of preschoolers 1 to 4 had taken it - and that that number jumped significantly higher to 18 and 19% for school-aged children and preteens.

GODOY: Most of the kids had been taking it for a year or longer. And 1 in 4 kids were taking it every single night. Dr. Cora Collette Breuner says that kind of widespread use is deeply troubling.

CORA COLLETTE BREUNER: It is terrifying to me that this amount of an unregulated product is being utilized.

GODOY: Breuner is a pediatrician at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital. She says because melatonin is sold over the counter, people assume it's safe. But melatonin is a hormone, and there are concerns that it could potentially interfere with puberty. And she says there's no real data on long-term use in children.

BREUNER: I counsel patients and families about this on a daily basis - and my colleagues - that when we don't know something in terms of what the long-term effect is, especially on a growing brain and growing body, then we shouldn't use it without more data.

GODOY: Melatonin supplements are unregulated. And research has found some can contain much more melatonin than what's listed on the label, in some cases, potentially dangerous amounts. One recent study found some gummies, the most common form of melatonin given to kids, even contained CBD.

NIA HEARD-GARRIS: The studies are really concerning in the fact that, like, you don't know what you're getting.

GODOY: Dr. Nia Heard-Garris is a researcher at Northwestern University and a pediatrician at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. She says she understands why desperate parents turn to melatonin to help their kids sleep.

HEARD-GARRIS: I'm also a mom, so for all the parents out there with kids that have sleep issues, I get it. I've been there. I am there. And I have also used melatonin, like, when my son was much younger.

GODOY: But she says given all the unknowns, the focus needs to be on sleep hygiene first, things like turning off screens at least an hour before bedtime, using blackout shades and not letting kids stay up more than an hour or two past their normal bedtime on weekends and vacations.

HEARD-GARRIS: Now, if we're at a situation that we have tried everything - they've seen a sleep specialist; you know, we've kind of done all of the things - then I will prescribe melatonin.

GODOY: Dr. Heard-Garris says parents should definitely talk to their pediatrician before giving kids melatonin because it's possible to give too much. Signs of an overdose in kids include irritability, headaches, stomach pains and dizziness and severe drowsiness.

HEARD-GARRIS: Those are the red flags.

GODOY: Pediatric overdoses of melatonin have risen in the last decade. And while most kids were treated at home, hospitalizations also went up. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the supplement only be used as a short-term way to help kids get rest. Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRILLION.'S "STAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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