In recent years, melatonin has become a bit of a buzzword amongst sleep deprived parents looking for a solution to their children’s sleep issues. But what exactly is melatonin and what does it have to do with sleep? And could supplements be the magic cure to your baby’s sleep woes?
In this article:
- What is melatonin?
- How do babies produce melatonin?
- What stimulates melatonin in babies and toddlers?
- Can you give melatonin to a baby?
- How safe is melatonin for kids?
- Natural ways to improve your baby's sleep
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What is melatonin?
Put simply, melatonin is a sleep hormone produced in the pineal gland that helps with both falling asleep and staying asleep.
Every human being has an in-built circadian rhythm or “body clock” that is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, which responds to changing light levels over a 24 hour period. When the sun comes up, the hypothalamus releases hormones that help to wake us up. When the sun sets and light levels start to decrease, the hypothalamus prepares our body to fall asleep by releasing melatonin.
Melatonin levels typically start to rise about 2hrs before our regular bedtime, putting us in a quiet, relaxed state so that we are ready to fall asleep. The continuous release of this sleep hormone overnight then helps us to stay in a deep sleep. Melatonin levels tend to peak between 2-4am and then ease off again in preparation for waking.
Melatonin is sometimes referred to as the “darkness hormone” since it is only released in the dark. Exposure to bright light suppresses the release of melatonin which can lead to difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep.
How do babies produce melatonin?
During pregnancy, a baby’s circadian rhythm is largely determined by the mother’s activity levels. When the mother is active, the baby’s heart and respiratory rates will speed up and when the mother is resting or sleeping, they will slow down again. Maternal melatonin also passes through the placenta, which helps babies to (mostly!) sleep when their mother is sleeping.
After birth though, this placental connection is broken. Melatonin can still be passed on to babies through breast milk and immediately after birth, the baby’s pineal gland will also be activated, meaning they will start to produce their own melatonin. Unfortunately the amount of melatonin produced is extremely small to start with, but this does increase with age.
Babies will also start to develop their own circadian rhythms post-birth. Initially, their sleep patterns can be quite erratic and some newborn babies will also experience day/night confusion. Somewhere between 8-16 weeks of age though, their circadian rhythms will begin to mature and you should find that they start to develop more predictable sleep patterns.
What stimulates melatonin in babies and toddlers?
Since melatonin is only produced when it’s dark, one of the biggest things we can do to help to stimulate our little one's melatonin production is to have them sleep in a dark room. For babies and toddlers under 2 years old, we recommend having a dark room for both naps and overnight sleep. This can help your baby to settle and fall asleep quicker and it will help them link their sleep cycles too.
Since the body’s circadian rhythm also plays a big part in the release of melatonin, having a consistent routine for your little one is also really important. To establish a routine for your baby, we recommend:
- Waking them at the same time each morning to help “set” their body clock.
- Making sure their nap times and lengths are appropriate for their age. This helps to build sleep pressure throughout the day, so that they are able to sleep well overnight.
- Keeping a consistent bedtime. For younger babies, under 6 months old, this should ideally be no more than 2 hours after waking from their last nap of the day. For older babies and toddlers, this can be anywhere from 4 hrs-5.5hrs after waking from their nap, just depending on their age and nap length.
Bedtime battles are one of the most common sleep challenges we are asked about but whilst melatonin can play a part in this, usually the difficulties settling are due to other factors like under or over tiredness, hunger, overstimulation or developmental leaps/milestones.
Some other strategies that can help with settling at bedtime include:
- Having a relaxing and predictable bedtime routine
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and sugar in the 2hrs before bedtime
- Avoiding screen time in the 2hrs before bedtime - this includes TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones
- Getting enough physical activity each day
- Eating dinner at least 2hrs before bedtime to allow time for digestion
Can you give melatonin supplements to a baby?
Parents who have experienced ongoing challenges with their baby’s sleep may start to wonder whether their little one is producing enough melatonin. Melatonin supplements can seem like a quick and easy solution to their baby’s sleep woes! The truth is there are many, many reasons why babies and children may struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep. These can include:
- Under or over tiredness
- A sleep environment that is not conducive to sleep
- Physical health issues such as teething, illness, reflux etc.
- Nutrient deficiencies (particularly iron)
- Reliance on parent-led sleep associations such as patting or rocking to sleep
- Behavioural changes
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Neurodevelopmental differences such as ADHD and autism
Before considering supplements, it is important to see your doctor for a thorough evaluation of your child's health and sleep. Generally speaking, melatonin supplements are not recommended for children under the age of 3 years old, as sleep difficulties at this age are almost always environmental or behavioural in nature.
In some cases though, particularly in children with neurodevelopmental differences like ADHD and autism, the pineal gland does not secrete enough melatonin at night. This is where supplements can be effective, alongside environmental changes and behavioural interventions. Melatonin can also help to combat temporary sleep issues like jet lag when travelling.
The availability of melatonin supplements varies depending on where you live in the world. In some countries, it is available over the counter in the form of liquids, gummies, pills, and chewable tablets. In other countries, these supplements only able to be prescribed by a doctor.
How safe is melatonin for kids?
Melatonin supplements appear to be safe for short-term use but as of yet, there have been no long-term studies into melatonin use in children. It’s also important to note that, like other supplements, melatonin is not regulated in the same way as medications are - this means they are not tested for safety or effectiveness and the amount of melatonin that supplements contain can vary from one batch to the next.
Side effects of melatonin use in children are rare but prolonged use or overuse has been reported to cause:
- vivid dreams
- redness of the cheeks, earlobes, and eyes
- feeling cold
In short, melatonin supplements can be effective in treating some sleep issues but are generally not recommended for children under 3 years of age. If your baby or toddler is having difficulties falling asleep, or staying asleep, there are other strategies you can implement to help with this...
How can I naturally improve my baby’s sleep?
1. Create the optimal sleep environment
We recommend a dark room for both naps and overnight sleep for babies and toddlers under 2 years old because at this age, they aren't capable of fearing the dark. Blackout blinds are an effective way to get the room as dark as possible during the day.
If your toddler develops a fear of the dark beyond 2 years of age, you may need to use a nightlight for reassurance. Use a red nightlight if you can, as this has been shown to have minimal impact on melatonin production. Blue light should definitely be avoided, as this suppresses melatonin more than any other colour of light!
For younger babies who aren’t rolling yet, we recommend swaddling them for naps and overnight sleep as this helps to suppress their startle reflex. For older babies who are rolling, a sleeping bag or sleepsuit with legs is a good option. This can help to prevent them getting tangled in blankets or kicking off the blankets and getting cold.
White noise can also be a very effective tool for settling and can help babies to drift between sleep cycles instead of waking fully - especially during naps and in the early morning when sleep pressure is lower.
You can find a list of recommended sleep products here: Products We Recommend
2. Awake times and nap lengths
At any given age, a baby will require a specific amount of sleep over a 24hr period. If they are having too much sleep during the day, they will be undertired at bedtime, causing them to wake more overnight. On the other hand, if they aren’t getting enough sleep during the day, this can then make them overtired which can also cause more overnight waking!
So how much sleep is the right amount for your little one? THIS article provides a rough guide but if you want to take the guesswork out completely, our Sleep Programs include evolving, age-appropriate, daily sleep schedules that will help you to get the balance just right.
One of the easiest ways to regulate your baby’s sleep is to wake them at the same time each morning and aim for similar nap times each day. If your baby is having too much sleep during the day, then you may also need to wake them from naps so that they will be tired enough to settle and sleep well overnight.
If your baby is over 3-4 months old, you may also need to look at how they are settling to sleep...
Around 3-4 months of age your baby’s circadian rhythm will mature, which means you should start to see some more predictable sleep patterns emerge. This doesn’t mean they will be perfect sleepers though! In fact, some babies who were sleeping well previously, can start to wake more frequently around 3-4 months due to the sleep regression at this age.
Once the 4 month regression hits, working on self-settling is the key to improving both their naps and overnight sleep. Focus on the start of naps and bedtime to begin with and this will give your baby the best chance at resettling themselves when they wake in between sleep cycles overnight. Our Sleep Programs contains several gentle methods to choose from if you are wanting to guide your baby towards self-settling.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that helps with both sleep onset and regulating sleep patterns. The release of melatonin is strongly linked to our circadian rhythm or “body clock” which responds to changes in light levels. This means that melatonin is only released when it is time for us to sleep - in other words, when it is dark!
To stimulate the production of this important sleep hormone, we recommend sleeping your baby in a dark room for both naps and overnight sleep. Waking them at the same time each morning and aiming for consistent naps each day can also help to develop their circadian rhythm.
Melatonin supplements may seem like a quick and easy fix for your baby’s sleep challenges but these are generally not recommended for children under the age of 3 years. If your baby or toddler is having difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, this is usually environmental or behavioural in nature. This means that their sleep can often be improved with other strategies such as making changes to their sleep environment or routine. Older babies and toddlers may also need help to develop independent settling skills.
In short, melatonin supplements are not a substitute for good sleep practices! If you are experiencing difficulties with your little one's sleep, our comprehensive Sleep Programs for babies and toddlers can definitely help to get things back on track.
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