Back when I was a kid, there was an ad that ran pretty frequently on daytime television for a book called, “The Doctors Book of Home Remedies,” and even as a child, I have to admit, I was fascinated.
I’m not sure what it is that I found so fascinating about curing ailments with common objects they had lying around the house, but obviously I wasn’t the only one. The book has sold something like 16 million copies and is still available on Amazon today.
One of the big selling points of cures like these is that they’re “natural.” We’re not taking some lab- designed chemical to solve the problem. We’re using something that’s readily available in nature.
You know. Like aspirin.
I should stipulate here that I’m not anti-homeopathy, nor am I anti-pharmaceutical. I feel that health decisions are something that should be carefully considered by the individual with the advice of their doctor. If probiotics will improve your gut health, I say go for it. If you need serious medication to lower your cholesterol, then you should probably take that too.
But anything your going to put in your body, and every bit as importantly, your child’s body, should be evaluated for its efficacy and possible side effects, which is why I think we should have a quick talk about melatonin. Melatonin has been touted by a lot of homeopathic experts as a safe, natural way of helping people get to sleep, and in a lot of ways, that actually very true, but there’s a whole lot more to understand about it before you take it yourself or give it to your child.
So what is it, exactly? Well, melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted from the pineal gland that helps to settle your body and mind wind down when it’s time to sleep. How exactly it does that is a very complicated process and involves more biology that I can possibly hope to understand, much less explain. So in the simplest terms, melatonin is your brain’s way of drawing the curtains for the night. Cortisol is its counterpart, which opens them back up, and the two together make up a large part of what we call our “body clock,” but more on that later.
An important point here is that melatonin is not a traditional sleep aid. As Dr. Luis Buenaver, a sleep expert from Johns Hopkins explains it, “Your body produces melatonin naturally. It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
How does our body know when to start producing melatonin? Quite naturally, actually. When it starts to get dark, the body recognizes the onset of night, and gets the melatonin pumps up and running. That worked like a charm for a couple of hundred thousand years, until we invented the light bulb. And the television. And the smart phone. And the laptop. Nowadays our eyes are flooded with so much artificial light that it can be difficult for our brains to determine when night is actually coming on, and it can interfere with melatonin production. That can mess up our body clocks and contribute to insomnia. Now, in some cases, jet-lag and shift work being the biggest two, a melatonin supplement can help reset our body clocks if they’ve been thrown out of whack, but it’s not a solution to sleep issues. My first piece of advice to people who are having trouble sleeping is to turn off their screens a couple of hours before bed, turn down the house lights, and come up with a bedtime routine. Let your body know that it’s time to sleep, and it’ll do almost all of the leg work for you.
Side note: This is not the case for insomniacs. People with psychological or physical conditions thatinhibit their sleep should definitely consult with their physicians.
Now, when it comes to kids, all of this information still applies. Newborns are something of an exception, as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they’re about 2 months old. Until then, they’re kind of flying by the seat of their pants, sleep-wise, as I’m sure you probably already know if you have any of your own. But past the 2 month mark, they start to establish a 24-hour light-dark sleep cycle, which is the standard sleep cycle that we follow throughout our lives.
So now we get to the big question... “Will giving my child melatonin help them sleep through the Night?” And the answer is, “No it will not.”
It might help them GET to sleep at night, but it will not help them stay asleep. This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. This is the general consensus of sleep specialist, researchers, and doctors worldwide. The National Sleep Foundation has found that, “...when scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a “sleeping pill” to a placebo (sugar pill) most studies show no benefit of melatonin.”
I do think being fully informed is important, of course. Melatonin is a hormone and can have serious side effects. There have also been studies that showed early sexual development in animal subjects given melatonin, but the link in human children hasn’t been established.
Again, I am not in any way against homeopathic or naturopathic medicine. Even in cases where the effects are psychological, and for some people, melatonin does indeed get them to sleep quicker and help them sleep through the night. If it’s just a placebo effect for some of them, no biggie. They’re getting the sleep they need and that’s vitally important in its own right. But when it comes to young kids, I feel that it’s essential for us as parents to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.
And here’s the good news. Kids and sleep go together like biscuits and gravy. They need a LOT of sleep, and for a short period in their lives, everything in their bodies is tuned to help ensure they get it. All they need from us is a little guidance and a determination to step out of the way sometimes so they can develop the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep on their own. You can check out some of my other blog posts for tips on how to teach independent sleep skills, since this is already getting a little wordy, but giving them any kind of sleep aid is definitely not the answer, whether it’s melatonin or Benadryl. Just like learning any other skill, it takes practice and time. There’s no supplement that can teach you how to play an instrument, teach you long division, or sharpen your golf game. Sleep is, in essence, exactly the same thing. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, and once it is, it comes easily and naturally, so before you reach for the pills, try establishing a predictable, consistent bedtime routine, shutting down the TVs and tablets a couple of hours before bed, and encouraging your child to fall asleep without feeding, rocking, or other forms of outside help. I promise you, the results will be better than anything you’ll get from a pill, and they’ll last them a lifetime.
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Ericka Cooley is a certified sleep consultant in Olympia Washington,
We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that our babies are properly nourished, obviously, but as anyone who’s been through this glorious journey of motherhood will tell you, kids are shrewd. They’re unimaginably clever. They will find ways to get what they want and they will repeat them relentlessly. Which is not their fault, obviously. They’re just working off of instinct. They know what they like, and at a young age, they like mom.
I’m talking all mom, all the time. You are to your baby what Pinterest is to middle age homeowners. Too much is never enough.
And given the fact that they really only have one method of communicating, if mom’s not around and they don’t think that’s cool, they fire up the lungs and they cry. However, obviously they don’t only cry because they want mom. They cry because they’re uncomfortable, or because they’ve got a dirty diaper, or because they’re too hot or too cold, and they cry because they’re hungry. So when they wake up in the middle of the night and they start crying, it’s tough to determine whether it’s because they need to eat or because they just want to see mom back in the room.
I’m not trying to tell you that you shouldn’t respond to your baby’s crying. You know your baby better than anyone and I imagine you can tell when something needs to be addressed based on the decibel level, intensity, pitch, and duration. But having said that, if your baby is waking up seven or eight times a night and insisting that you come in and rock her back to sleep, that can have a serious impact on everybody’s sleep, including hers. A lot of babies have developed a dependency on nursing, rocking, sucking, and so on, in order to get to sleep, and it’s not something they can overcome in 15 or 20 minutes. Solving that issue takes some real work and a firm commitment from you, but we can talk about sleep training in a minute here.
First things first, here are a few things to consider when you’re trying to determine this oh-so-prevalent parental riddle.
• IS BABY UNDER SIX MONTHS OLD?
Up until about the six month mark, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, they haven’t started solid food yet, and formula and breast milk digest fairly quickly, so there’s a good chance they’re going to get a case of the munchies during the night.
This isn’t the case for all babies, obviously. Some infants sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age and then pig out during the day, but generally speaking, you can expect to be summoned for a nighttime feed up until baby’s hit about six months.
• IS BABY EATING ENOUGH DURING THE DAY?
Once baby’s capable of sleeping through the night without a feed, you need to make sure they’re getting the calories they need during their daytime hours. The best way I’ve found to make this switch is to throw in an extra feed during the day, or by adding an ounce or two to each bottle throughout the day. This is also a great time to think about introducing solid foods. The good news here is that baby’s body will typically adjust over a night or two to start taking in those additional calories during the daytime once they’re no longer getting them at night. Just a quick but SUPER IMPORTANT reminder… Before you attempt to make any changes to your
baby’s feeding schedule, talk to your pediatrician. Nighttime sleep is awesome but calories are essential. If your little one is underweight or not growing as fast as they should be, it might not be a good time to wean out night feedings, so again, chat with your doctor.
• IS BABY FALLING ASLEEP QUICKLY WHEN YOU FEED THEM?
I’m sure you know this scenario. Baby starts crying 45 minutes after you put her down, you go in and offer a feed which she eagerly accepts, she takes about three quarters of an ounce, then promptly passes out in the middle of things. If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your little one’s feeding for comfort instead of hunger. Babies who are genuinely hungry will usually eat until they’re full, whereas those who are feeding for comfort tend to drift off pretty quickly once they’ve gotten what they’re looking for.
• DOES BABY SLEEP FOR A GOOD STRETCH AFTER FEEDING?
If baby does take a full feed at night, she should be able to sleep for around 3-4 hours afterwards. An average sleep cycle for babies around the 6 month mark is somewhere in the 45minute - 1 hour range, so if they’re waking up around that long after they eat, it’s likely that they’re dependent on the sucking and soothing actions of your feeding routine to get to sleep.
• WILL THEY GO BACK TO SLEEP WITHOUT A FEED?
So if your baby really is hungry, they usually won’t go back to sleep very easily until they’ve been fed. If they nod off after five or ten minutes of crying, that’s a pretty reliable sign that they were just looking for some help getting back to sleep and not actually in need of a feed.
• DOES BABY FALL ASLEEP INDEPENDENTLY?
Here lies the linchpin. The cornerstone of the whole equation, this right here. Can your baby fall asleep on their own? If you can put your baby down in her crib while she’s still awake, leave the room, and have baby fall asleep without any help from you, without a pacifier, or any other kind of outside assistance, then those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that she genuinely needs a hand with something when she wakes up crying at night. Determining whether your baby’s hungry at night is obviously a complicated situation. Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we typically end up paralyzed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is immeasurably easier to walk once you’ve taught your baby the skills they need to fall asleep on their own. Once the habit of feeding to sleep is broken, you can feel much more confident that their requests for a nighttime feed are out of necessity and not just a way of grabbing a few extra minutes with mom.
And, as always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, I’ve got you covered.
My name is Ericka Cooley and I'm a mom of two young ones, Taylor and Matthew.