What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone that’s produced in the brain. Your body produces more melatonin when it’s dark and less when it’s light.

Melatonin maintains your circadian rhythm, which is your internal 24-hour clock. Your circadian rhythm helps to control when you fall asleep, how long you sleep and when you wake up.

Who is melatonin for?

Melatonin is used to help people who have trouble sleeping – for example, because of jet lag or shift work. It can also be used to help with sleep problems in children, including children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is melatonin used for?

Melatonin is used to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have sleep problems fall asleep quicker, sleep for longer and wake up fewer times in the night. It might also help improve daytime behaviour in some children with ASD.

Where does melatonin therapy come from?

Melatonin therapy comes from research that started in the 1990s. This research showed that some people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have reduced melatonin levels. Researchers looked at whether melatonin supplements would help with sleep difficulties for people with ASD.

What is the idea behind melatonin therapy?

Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have trouble sleeping, particularly with falling asleep and not sleeping for long at night. Some children with ASD have low levels of melatonin.

The idea is that melatonin supplements will raise melatonin levels and help with sleep. Melatonin is also a soporific. This means that it makes the person taking it feel more sleepy.

What does melatonin therapy involve?

You can take melatonin as a pill or in forms that you put under your tongue or in your cheek. You take it daily just before bedtime. It usually takes about 30 minutes to work.

Cost considerations

The cost depends on the melatonin brand and dosage.

Does melatonin work?

Melatonin supplements help some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) fall asleep faster.

The supplements might also help children sleep for longer and/or wake up fewer times in the night. But the evidence isn’t clear, and some recent research has shown no improvement in length of sleep or night waking.

Melatonin might help improve daytime behaviour in some children with ASD, but the improved daytime behaviour might also be because children are sleeping better at night.

Further research needs to look at:

  • how helpful and safe melatonin is for long-term use
  • whether there’s a difference between fast-release and controlled-release melatonin
  • whether the sleep problems of children with ASD are caused by low melatonin levels or whether the sleep problems influence the melatonin levels
  • whether the benefits of melatonin are because of melatonin’s soporific effect, because some children who respond to supplements have normal levels of melatonin.

Who practises this method?

If you’re interested in melatonin for your child, it’s best to get melatonin supplements prescribed by a GP or paediatrician. These health professionals can prescribe the right dose and give you information about melatonin and any possible side effects or interactions with other medicines. They’ll also monitor your child while he’s taking the medication.

It’s also a good idea to have a sleep assessment first to identify your child’s specific sleep problem and make sure the dose and timing of melatonin is adjusted for it.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

You need to ensure your child takes the medication on a daily basis and at the specified time before bed. You also need to monitor its effects.

Where can you find a practitioner?

Speak to your GP or your child’s paediatrician about melatonin.

You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.