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 autistic children.
What is melatonin used for?
Melatonin is used to help autistic children 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 autistic children.
Where does melatonin therapy come from?
Melatonin therapy comes from research that started in the 1990s. This research showed that some autistic people have reduced melatonin levels. Researchers looked at whether melatonin supplements would help with sleep difficulties for autistic people.
What is the idea behind melatonin therapy?
Many autistic children have sleep problems, particularly problems with falling asleep and not sleeping for long at night. Some autistic children 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.
The cost depends on the melatonin brand and dosage.
Does melatonin work?
Research suggests that melatonin supplements help some autistic children fall asleep faster. Research also suggests that ‘prolonged-release’ melatonin can help children sleep for longer and/or wake up fewer times in the night.
Melatonin might help improve daytime behaviour in some autistic children. It’s likely that daytime behaviour improves because children are sleeping better at night.
Further research needs to look at whether:
- melatonin use is helpful and safe in the long term
- there’s a difference between fast-release and controlled-release melatonin
- the sleep problems of autistic children are caused by low melatonin levels or whether the sleep problems influence the melatonin levels
- the benefits of melatonin are because melatonin makes people feel sleepy, given that some children who respond to supplements have normal levels of melatonin.
Who practises this method?
If you’re interested in melatonin for your child, you’ll need to get a prescription from your 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 they’re 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?
It’s best to speak to your GP or your child’s paediatrician about melatonin.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.