Over-the-counter melatonin medication can shorten the length of time it takes for children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), fragile X syndrome (FXS), or both to fall asleep at the beginning of the night, according to new research.

Children who received over-the-counter melatonin treatments experienced significant improvements in total night sleep durations, sleep latency times, and sleep-onset times. When taking melatonin, study participants experienced an earlier sleep-onset time by 42 minutes when compared to placebo. Additionally, mean sleep duration increased by 21 minutes with the melatonin while sleep-onset latency was shorter by 28 minutes.

Senior author Beth L. Goodlin-Jones, PhD, of the M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California Davis Health System, says that parents of special-needs children often experience additional stress near their children’s bedtime.

“Sleep onset problems at the beginning of the night are very troublesome for children and their families. Sometimes children may take 1 to 2 hours to fall asleep and often they disrupt the household during this time,” stated Goodlin-Jones.

The study authors state that up to 89% of children with autism and 77% of children with FXS report sleep problems. Difficulty falling asleep and frequent nighttime awakenings are among the most commonly reported sleep problems.

According to a release on the study, researchers hypothesize that abnormal levels of melatonin are to blame for the difficulty sleeping reported in these children.

The study appears in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

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