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Almost half of foster parents have given melatonin to children in their care

Article-Almost half of foster parents have given melatonin to children in their care

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Almost half of foster parents have given melatonin to children in their care, according to US researchers who say these children are also more likely to experience poor sleep quality and behavioural difficulties.

The study, which was presented at last week’s SLEEP 2024 annual meeting in Houston, Texas, found that 48% of foster caregivers reported administering melatonin to children, either currently or in the past.

Children who were given melatonin had poorer overall sleep quality compared with those who were not. Even after adjustment for sleep quality and other potential confounders, use of the supplement was associated with increased severity of daytime behavioural problems.

“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,” said lead author Carter Baker, research co-ordinator for the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston, at the University of Houston.

“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.”

Melatonin use in children ‘may be associated with other variables beyond sleep’

The researchers surveyed 454 US-based caregivers currently fostering children aged between four and 11 years. They asked whether they had ever given children melatonin, and sought details regarding aspects of children’s sleep, as well as emotional and behavioural problems.

Participants included in the sample were relatively diverse, including 17% Black/African-American and 11% Hispanic children from 46 US states.

The study, which was published in an online supplement of the journal Sleep, found that 48% of foster carers had given melatonin to children, either currently or in the past.

“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 added.

“These findings suggest that melatonin use may be associated with other variables beyond sleep, which requires further study.”

Parents advised to consult healthcare professional before giving children melatonin

US researchers last year sounded the alarm over statistics showing that nearly one in five school-aged children had taken melatonin for sleep, with some parents routinely giving the hormone to preschoolers.

Their study found that 18.5% of five- to nine-year-olds had been given melatonin in the previous 30 days; that number rose to 19.4% among 10- to 13-year-olds.

At the time, they warned that safety and efficacy data surrounding such products are slim and lack full regulation. In the US, melatonin is considered a “dietary supplement” and, as such, is subject to less strict regulations than over-the-counter or prescription medications.

The figures are particularly concerning given that from 2012 to 2021, reports of melatonin ingestion to poison control centres increased by 530%, largely occurring among children under the age of five. More than 94% were unintentional and 85% were asymptomatic.

In 2022, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a health advisory stating that parents should talk to a healthcare professional before giving melatonin or any supplement to children.