All parents can agree—a good night’s sleep is one of the most amazing feelings—and even more so when our children sleep well. It’s not always easy, though, and sometimes kids need a little help getting into a healthy sleeping routine. Melatonin has become a popular, over-the-counter supplement to help kids sleep, but some of the news coverage about melatonin poisoning, guidelines in the works to make melatonin safer for kids, and a report from the CDC concerning melatonin-related emergency room visits for children 5 and younger, have raised questions:

  • What is melatonin? How does it work?
  • Is melatonin safe?  
  • What are the signs of melatonin overdose or poisoning?
  • How else can I get my child to sleep!?

Dr. John Brancato, Division Head of Emergency Medicine at Connecticut Children’s, addresses concerns about melatonin poisoning from parents.

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First, what is melatonin and how does it help our bodies sleep? Is it safe?

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by our brain. It helps both kids and adults to respond to changes in daylight and also encourages sleep. Because melatonin is not addictive and because the body produces it naturally, it’s fairly safe to use in most cases. Melatonin for kids comes in different forms—the most popular being great-tasting gummies—not unlike candy. 

Now, here are the basics about melatonin poisoning and what’s happening across the nation.

In the past ten years:

  • The National Poison Data System received over 260,000 phone calls about children consuming too much melatonin. More than 50,000 were in 2021 alone.
  • During that period, over 4,500 children nationwide experienced serious symptoms of melatonin overdose.
  • Five children were placed on a ventilator and two children died.
  • The vast majority of the children involved, however, had few to no symptoms and were able to be cared for at home.
    So how do I know if my child has melatonin poisoning?

Here are some things to watch out for if your child consumes melatonin frequently, and in larger doses than your pediatrician recommends:

  • Extreme sleepiness—this is the most common sign of melatonin poisoning. If your child seems very tired to the point where it’s affecting their daily activities, a trip to the emergency room might be necessary to rule out any other issues.
  • Repeated vomiting—we all know vomiting can mean something else—like a stomach bug. However, consider this if your child takes melatonin to sleep.
  • Slurred speech—if your child is slurring their words or cannot speak clearly, it’s time to go to the emergency room.

Call 911 if the situation is life threatening.

How much melatonin is "too much?"

The answer isn’t always that simple. While between one and three milligrams is generally safe for young children, please ask your pediatrician first. And for adults, try to avoid taking more than five milligrams daily.

The other issue, aside from the exact dosage, is that the vitamin and supplement industry is very unregulated. This means that the amount of melatonin may vary remarkably from what is printed on the label and other ingredients could be included that are not listed.

Some melatonin products may also contain serotonin, a precursor (building block) of melatonin in the body and a powerful neurotransmitter (the body's chemical messenger).  The presence of serotonin appears to be more likely in products that contain other herbal extracts.  This “double dose” can increase the risk of melatonin poisoning.

Finally, don’t panic. Also, don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve been giving your child melatonin to sleep.

We’re all trying our best. You are not a bad parent for wanting to help your child (and entire household!) sleep soundly. At the same time, it’s always important to be aware about the potential dangers of melatonin. Remember to keep ALL medications, including supplements, locked safely away from children.

>Related: Tips for Better Sleep for Mental Health in a Challenging World

All right—besides melatonin, what else can I do to help my child sleep?!

There are many things you can do! It takes commitment, patience and knowing the most appropriate techniques for your child’s age. 

Also, maybe it’s time for a sleep study. Need an appointment with one of our dedicated sleep specialists? Call 860.837.6643.

Sources Consulted: