The hormone melatonin is being handed out too readily to children who are struggling to sleep, despite the fact little is known about the long-term risks of taking it, experts have warned.
Melatonin, a hormone the body produces naturally in reaction to darkness that helps prepare us for sleep, has been authorised for use among the over-55s, and has been hailed as a less-addictive alternative to drug treatments for insomnia.
But after a surge in the number of children under 14 being admitted to hospital with sleep disorders over the last decade, specialists are concerned that it is being given to children ”off label” – with little knowledge of the long-term safety or side-effects. They fear that it may be being overprescribed by paediatricians and has become a fashionable treatment for parents who want “perfect” children.
While NHS data on prescriptions does not give figures for children specifically, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of melatonin prescriptions among the under-55s in general over the last 10 years. Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert and former director of sleep research at the University of Surrey, said that overuse of the treatment for children had been brought to his attention by the GPs and nurses he lectures, who dispense it after it is prescribed by paediatricians.
“Unless a child has a diagnosed condition such as autism that has been scientifically proven to be helped by melatonin, there is no medical rationale for a child to be given it,” he said. “Most paediatricians know little about sleep or melatonin. For non-autistic children it is a fashionable treatment for parents wanting ‘perfect’ children.”
When given as a medicine, melatonin is usually made synthetically in a laboratory. The short-term side effects are thought to be minimal, but it can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and drowsiness. However, in the long term there are ongoing concerns based on studies in animals showing melatonin can affect puberty-related hormones
Vicki Dawson, founder of the NHS Doncaster-funded the Children’s Sleep Charity, the only free specialist service that provides support to families for children’s sleep, said lots of children are being prescribed melatonin “often because there is no behavioural support for sleep available”.
She added: “One of our aims is to lower melatonin prescription levels. For example, in Doncaster children are now not prescribed melatonin until they have been through behavioural approaches to sleep.”
Dawson said: “Sometimes there is a place for it [melatonin]. We work closely with paediatricians and there are times when we will say we think it is helpful but only for short periods of time. My concern is some children are on it as a long-term solution. I have worked with kids on it six or seven years.”
– Sarah Marsh
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