Getting young children to bed on time has never been an easy feat. Recently, more and more parents have been turning to an "all natural" supplement, melatonin, to help induce sweet dreams. However, doctors have a warning for parents that melatonin might not be as safe and natural as advertised.
"In one sense I can say I hate it, in another sense I can tell you it's been a lifesaver for my daughter," says Missy St. Peter, a mother of two in West Haven.
Several times a week before bed, St. Peter and her husband Dan crush a 3 milligram dose of melatonin, mix it with peanut butter and give it to their 9-year-old daughter Vicky on a cracker.
"If I give her melatonin, she doesn't wake up in the middle of the night. She gets a full 8 hours. Everyone in the house is happy," St. Peter says.
After having consistent trouble getting Vicky and their energetic son Bubba to bed on time, the St. Peters turned to melatonin, a hormonal supplement recommended by their pediatrician.
However, the supplement also has a potential down side. The pill that has worked wonders for the St. Peters' daughter has turned out to be a disaster for their 7-year-old son.
"Every time I give him melatonin he wakes up in the middle of the night and he's terrified," St. Peter recalls. "I stopped the melatonin."
The St. Peter's mixed results are hard to explain but the doctors we spoke to agree one thing is clear: melatonin isn't necessarily qualified to be a safe sleep aid for kids.
Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by your brain and is present in every person's body. It is produced at a higher rate at a young age. Despite the fact that it is naturally occurring, Hartford Hospital toxicologist wants parents to know that the manufactured supplements have not been clinically proven to be a healthy sleep agent.
"It's very easy to walk into a drug store and see shelves of pills that are supplements and are marketed to treat a certain condition even though legally they can't market them as such," Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains.
Many bottles sold in drug stores advertise that melatonin actually "helps promote sleep" but if you look closely, there is a disclaimer on the back: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, care or prevent any disease."
"It's possibly thought to affect growth, to affect sexual development and puberty and a lot of different effects," Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains. "It is a hormone and it definitely can have these severe interactions that you might not think of just looking at the pill on the counter and buying it over the counter thinking it is safe."
Dr. Johnson-Arbor cites studies that melatonin is clinically proven to help children with specific disabilities like autism but has not yet been proven to be healthy for children without disabilities.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition is the leading trade association for the supplement industry.
"Melatonin has a strong safety profile but it should only be given to children as a sleep aide in consultation with a doctor or other healthcare practitioner," said Duffy MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council. MacKay is also a practicing naturopathic doctor.
When we asked our Facebook followers about melatonin for children, the reactions were strong. They ranged from success stories to vows never to touch the supplement.
West Hartford Pediatrician Dr. Tom Fromson strongly recommends examining bed time routines, exposure to bright screens, exercise and diet before taking melatonin.
"As a routine medication to help a child sleep, I think I should first have a better understanding of why child is having trouble sleeping," Dr. Fromson told NBC Connecticut.
Busy mom Missy St. Peter agrees with Fromson but says she has not had luck with those adjustments. She's simply a mother who wants her daughter to get a good night's rest so she can be at her best.
"I've tried all that. Even still, we are very conscious about their diet and their exercise and it doesn't matter and I still need it, for them," St. Peter says.
"It's definitely very helpful to have especially for her, not just for me, because she can sleep and give school her all or tests her all or whatever big thing we have going on."
Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson-Arbor of Hartford Hospital urges parents to think twice, much like how St. Peter did.
"I know it's hard," Dr. Johnson-Arbor says. "I know we all want our kids to sleep well at night, but sometimes a pill isn't always the answer."