What You Need to Know: Melatonin for Children with Autism

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Children on the autism spectrum (ASD) have trouble sleeping. The most common problem is insomnia, either they have trouble falling asleep or frequently wake through the night. This impacts the child’s behavior and school performance but it also affects parents and sometimes other siblings. For many parents, using melatonin supplements provide a solution.

    Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies. Melatonin is secreted in cycles and is highest in the evening and during the night and helps you sleep. Melatonin is available in supplement form. Many people take these supplements to help them fall asleep. Parents of children with autism have found them to be helpful and research supports this.

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    According to research, children with autism produce lower levels of autism compared to children without ASD. Some studies show a direct correlation between severity of ASD symptoms and levels of melatonin.

    A study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and funded by Autism Speaks and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development showed that melatonin supplements helped children fall asleep within 30 minutes of “lights out” for at least 5 nights per week. Doses of the supplement ranged from 1 mg. to 6 mg. Only two of the children in the study required the highest dose. The majority of the children responded to a dose of 3 mg.  Other studies have shown that those receiving melatonin supplements not only fall asleep faster but awake less often during the night and sleep for longer periods of time.

    What You Need to Know:

    • Melatonin supplements are available in the supplement section of your local grocery store and pharmacy, however, these supplements are not regulated by the FDA and there can be discrepancies in strength between manufacturers.
    • It is always best to talk with your pediatrician before beginning any supplements, including melatonin. While this supplement has been found to be relatively safe, it is important to rule out any underlying conditions, such as gastrointestinal problems or sleep apnea, that are causing your child to have trouble sleeping.
    • There is no consensus on the correct dosing of melatonin. Some children respond to a dose as low as 1 mg, while others require larger doses. Your doctor can help you determine the correct dose. He (or she) might suggest you start with 1 mg. and move up only if your child doesn’t respond.
    • Melatonin is available in liquid form as well as tablets.
    • Some parents have reported an improvement in behavior after starting melatonin. This could be because lack of sleep can worsen symptoms of ASD and getting a good night’s sleep helps improve behavior.

    Keep a log of your child’s sleeping habits, before and after using melatonin. Track information such as: time given, dosage, how long it took your child to fall asleep, number of times awakened during the night and behavior the following day. Pay attention to whether your child is groggy the following day. Bring this information with you at your next doctor’s appointment to review with your child’s doctor.

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    “Kids with Autism Often Have Trouble Sleeping, Study Shows,” 2013, Oct 1, Staff Writer, HealthDay News

    “Melatonin in Autism Spectrum Disorders,” 2012, Sept. 20, DA Rossignol, RE Frye, Current Clinical Pharmacology

    “More Evidence that Melatonin Eases Autism-Associated Insomnia,” 2011, Dec. 13, Staff Writer, Autism Speaks

Published On: February 18, 2014