If you’ve been giving your children melatonin gummies to help them sleep, you might want to reconsider: a new study conducted by researchers at Cambridge Health Alliance and University of Mississippi found that not all of the supplements tested contained the amount claimed on the packaging, and some contained amounts that could be dangerous for young children.

Of 25 different brands that researchers tested, 22 were mislabeled, with some showing a “staggering discrepancy” in what was advertised, The New York Times reported.

“Consuming melatonin gummies as directed could expose children to between 40 and 130 times higher quantities of melatonin” than implied on the label, the researchers said.

The report was the latest red flag for parents concerning melatonin use. In February, a committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued a health advisory about children and melatonin usage, noting that melatonin use by children had “significantly increased” between 1999 and 2020 and that some children have been hospitalized for overdoses.

A hormone your body naturally secretes, melatonin regulates circadian rhythms — that is, the cycle of wakefulness and sleep. Supplements containing melatonin are widely believed to help users sleep better and are often touted as an easy cure for insomnia and jet lag. 

A quick internet search shows how ubiquitous children’s gummies containing melatonin have become. They’re relatively inexpensive and easy to find, and often are presented as a kind of candy; in fact, one brand calls its melatonin supplement “sleep jelly beans.”

Recent years have seen the pediatric use of melatonin supplements skyrocket: prior to COVID-19, only 1.3% of American children took melatonin for stress, relaxation and sleep, the researchers noted in their article, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

But in the period spanning 2012 to 2021, calls to U.S. Poison Control Centers regarding children’s ingestion of melatonin rose by 530%, researchers said, and melatonin consumption was associated with nearly 28,000 visits to clinics and emergency rooms, more than 4,000 hospitalizations, and almost 300 stays in the intensive care unit. Melatonin was also associated with the deaths of two children. 

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Similarly, in their health advisory, the Public Safety Committee and Public Awareness Advisory Committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine wrote that 15% of melatonin overdoses required hospitalization.

The difference between the dose listed on the label versus what’s actually in a melatonin supplement can range anywhere from “−83% to +478%,” the committee noted, adding that “the most variability (is) found in chewable tablets, such as those in pediatric formulations.” They also pointed to the accessibility of melatonin supplements, which are often “candy-like and colorful, appealing to children in particular.”

The committee recommended that melatonin “be handled as any other medication and kept out of reach of children”; its advisory also suggested that parents consult with a pediatrician or health care professional before giving children melatonin or any other supplement. 

This latest research confirms what earlier studies have shown: a 2017 study found wide variability in the amount of melatonin in supplements with respect to the labeling, as well as the presence of serotonin. While serotonin is a neurotransmitter present in everyone’s bodies, it is also a “controlled substance used in the treatment of several neurological disorders,” researchers noted. Serotonin was present in 26% of the melatonin supplements they tested. The previous year, researchers in Spain noted dosage inconsistencies and contamination, as well. 

Rather than giving children melatonin, medical professionals suggest the following to help our little ones get a good night’s sleep: stick to a regular bedtime routine; keep the room cool, quiet and dark; stay away from screens before bedtime; and engage in relaxing activities to wind down, like taking a warm bath and reading. (Think of the three b’s: bath, book, bed.)

If parents insist on giving melatonin to their children, the Public Safety Committee and Public Awareness Advisory Committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends parents “look for products with the US Pharmacopeia verified (USP verified) mark, which indicates that product was produced in a facility following Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards.”