New data indicate that 48% of foster caregivers give melatonin to children, resulting in poorer sleep quality and behavior difficulties.

Summary: A new study presented at the SLEEP 2024 annual meeting revealed that nearly half of foster caregivers (48%) reported giving melatonin to their children. The study found that children who were administered melatonin experienced poorer overall sleep quality and increased daytime behavioral problems compared to those not given melatonin. However, melatonin use was not linked to symptoms of depression or anxiety. Researchers say the findings highlight gaps in understanding the safety and efficacy of melatonin use in foster children, a population with histories of trauma and neglect. 

Key Takeaways:

  • 48% of foster caregivers reported giving melatonin to their foster children, highlighting a common practice despite limited research on its safety and efficacy in this population.
  • Children administered melatonin experienced poorer sleep quality and increased daytime behavioral problems, even after accounting for other factors.
  • Gaps exist between scientific understanding and the common practice of melatonin use in foster children, which researchers say underscores the need for further research.

A new study found that it is common for foster caregivers to give melatonin to their child, and these children who have taken melatonin have worse sleep and more daytime behavioral problems.

Results, presented at the SLEEP 2024 annual meeting, show that 48% of foster caregivers reported administering melatonin to their child. Children given melatonin had poorer overall sleep quality compared to children not given melatonin, yet even after adjustment for sleep quality and other potential confounders, melatonin use was associated with increased severity of daytime behavioral problems in foster children. However, melatonin use was not associated with symptoms of depression or anxiety.

“These results are eye-opening given that we know almost nothing about the safety or efficacy of melatonin use in this population because not a single study has focused on children with histories of neglect, abuse, and/or other traumas,” says lead author Carter Baker, research coordinator for the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston at the University of Houston, in a release. “Based on our analysis, major discrepancies exist between the science and common practice for some of our most vulnerable children and these gaps urgently need to be addressed.”

Health Advisory Warns of Melatonin Risks for Children

According to a 2022 health advisory from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, parents should talk to a health care professional before giving melatonin or any supplement to children. In the United States, melatonin is considered a “dietary supplement.” Therefore, melatonin is not under US Food and Drug Administration oversight like other over-the-counter or prescription medications. 

An increased use of the supplement in recent years has occurred along with growing reports of melatonin overdose, calls to poison control centers, and emergency room visits for children.

Survey on Melatonin Use and in Foster Children

Survey data were collected from 454 caregivers currently fostering children between the ages of 4 and 11 years in the United States. Questions addressed whether they had ever administered melatonin to the foster child, aspects of the child’s sleep, and emotional and behavioral problems. Children included in the sample were relatively diverse, with 17% Black/African American and 11% Hispanic children from 46 US states.

“Compared to children in foster care not given melatonin, children taking melatonin were more likely to receive intensive levels of care, have younger foster caregivers, and spend more time in their current foster home on average,” Baker adds in a release. “These findings suggest that melatonin use may be associated with other variables beyond sleep, which requires further study.”

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