Children can struggle with sleep for numerous reasons, some of which are the same reasons you might struggle with sleep. For example, stress, anxiety, too much screen time, or perhaps an underlying sleep disorder are examples of the more common reasons for insomnia1 in people of all ages.
Knowing these underlying causes is important because ideally, you’ll start by treating the problem at the root. If, however, you’ve tried and tried and your child is still not getting enough sleep, you might be wondering about sleep aids.
In this article, we’ll go over the different types of sleep aids available and how safe they are for children. We’ll also cover some more general sleep tips for kids, as it’s always best to try and solve the problem behaviorally first. As a general reminder, though, be sure to speak to your pediatrician before giving your child a new supplement or medication.
What Are Sleep Aids for Kids?
Sleep aids for kids are generally just sleep aids marketed towards kids. The goal of a sleep aid is to help someone sleep better. This might look like helping them fall asleep more easily, stay asleep, or improve their overall quality of rest. However, it’s important to note that there are no specific FDA-approved sleep aid formulas for children under 18 years old2.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry3 (AACAP), it is always best to address children’s sleep issues with behavioral solutions. Still, your pediatrician may recommend sleep aids to accompany those behavioral solutions in some circumstances. For most children, sleep aids of all kinds should only be used temporarily.3
Types of Sleep Aids for Kids
According to the AACAP, there are several categories of sleep aids used for children. More commonly, doctors may suggest dietary supplements like melatonin or over-the-counter products like antihistamines. Less commonly, doctors may prescribe alpha adrenergic medications, antidepressants, antipsychotics, Z-medications, benzodiazepines, or orexin receptor antagonists to treat insomnia in children.3
Melatonin for Kids
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the pineal gland4, and one of its most important functions is to help facilitate sleep when it’s dark outside. Melatonin supplements are made up of either synthetic or animal-derived5 melatonin. They work by increasing melatonin levels in the body to help support the body’s natural circadian rhythm and promote sleepiness. Experts say that our melatonin levels naturally rise around two hours before bed6, so this is the recommended time to take melatonin supplements.
The use of melatonin supplements has skyrocketed in children over the past few years.5 This is largely because melatonin is readily available over-the-counter in the U.S., and it is considered more natural since melatonin is a hormone already produced in the body.
Is Melatonin Safe for Kids?
In general, experts believe that melatonin supplements seem to be safe for children7, permitted they are given at the appropriate dose, used for only a short period (a maximum of three weeks8), and coupled with behavioral changes to address sleep issues.
There are some things to keep in mind when giving your child melatonin, though.
One topic researchers are looking into is melatonin’s link to puberty. Shortly before puberty, children’s melatonin levels drop significantly9, with some experts speculating that this may be part of what triggers puberty. Because of this, there is some concern that supplemental melatonin could have an impact on puberty. However, more research is needed.
Possible side effects of melatonin use may include headaches, increased bedwetting, dizziness, nightmares or vivid dreams, mood changes, or morning grogginess.7
The appropriate dose will depend on your child’s age and their specific needs. The following are general guidelines; always ask your pediatrician before giving your child melatonin.
- Under 3 Years Old: Children under three should not use melatonin, with experts adding that sleep issues during this time are often behavioral.7
- 3 – 5 Years Old: Children at this age should take a maximum of 1 milligram of melatonin10.
- 6 – 12 Years Old: Doctors recommend a maximum of 2.5-3 milligrams of melatonin in children between the ages of 6 and 12.10
- 13 Years Old and Up: Doctors recommend a maximum of 5 milligrams of melatonin for children 13 and up.10
Since it is not regulated by the FDA, you’ll also want to make sure the products you’re buying are USP-verified11 to ensure that the label ingredients are accurately listed and safe.
Natural Sleep Supplements for Kids
There are plenty of other natural sleep aids on the market as well. Aside from melatonin, some of the more popular natural sleep aids include L-theanine, valerian root, CBD, and magnesium. These can come as powders, supplements, teas, liquids, or gummies.
Are Natural Sleep Supplements Safe for Kids?
Some evidence suggests that both L-theanine12 and valerian root13 may safely help children and teens sleep better. However, most of the studies on these natural supplements are done on adults, and that research is limited.
When it comes to CBD, the Child Mind Institute14 recommends that parents avoid giving it to their children for sleep or other issues, until further research is done. They also warn that while it may help kids with sleep temporarily, it may cause insomnia to worsen when stopped.
Magnesium is a mineral naturally found in foods like nuts and green leafy vegetables15. It’s also available as a dietary supplement. The upside here is that kids could get more magnesium through their diet, rather than taking supplements.
Experts suggest a magnesium dietary allowance of 130 milligrams per day for children ages four to eight and 250 milligrams per day for children nine to 13.15
If you want to play it extra safe, you can avoid supplements altogether. Simply giving your child some warm milk, tart cherry juice, or chamomile tea before bed could help them sleep16.
Read our guide: Best Natural Sleep Aids for 2024
Prescription Sleep Medication for Kids
Many prescription drugs can induce sleepiness, and so occasionally, a doctor will prescribe them for children or teens as a last resort.
For example, alpha adrenergic medications are sometimes prescribed to help kids with ADHD sleep. Benzodiazepines like Clonazepam are sometimes prescribed to children and teens with severe night terrors or sleepwalking. “Z-medications,” powerful hypnotics that include Ambien, are (rarely) prescribed to children and teens. Finally, orexin receptor antagonists are a new class of medication that limits the effects of orexin, a chemical in the brain that regulates sleep and alertness. Though it is approved to treat insomnia in adults, it is not approved to treat insomnia in kids.3
Are Prescription Sleep Medications Safe for Kids?
Even though all of the medications listed above are occasionally prescribed to children and teens in special cases, the AACAP warns that these drugs can be dangerous and should be kept in a place where your child or teen cannot get them. The AACAP adds that none of these drugs are approved by the FDA to treat insomnia in children or teens.3
The biggest risks of these prescriptions are tolerance and dependence. For example, if your child takes Clonazepam for sleep, they’ll have to continue to take more and more of it for it to have the same effect over time. This can easily lead to drug dependence17– not being able to sleep without it.
Additionally, taking too much of any of these medications can be dangerous so be sure to follow the doctor’s prescription. Never give your child a prescription sleep aid without the direction of their doctor.
Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids for Kids
Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids are any sleep-inducing supplements or medications that are available to purchase without a prescription.
We’ve already gone over some of the natural OTC sleep aids like melatonin and valerian root, but another option that has become increasingly popular for children is antihistamines like Benadryl or Unisom.
Ordinarily, antihistamines are used to treat allergies. One of their common side effects, though, is drowsiness18, so some people use antihistamines to get to sleep.
Are Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids Safe for Kids?
The AACAP warns you should never use antihistamines to treat insomnia in your child for more than two weeks because longer use could lead to your child developing a tolerance as well as an inability to sleep without it.3 Research has also found that long-term antihistamine use can increase the risk for dementia19 later in life.
Short-term side effects can include constipation, dry mouth, blurry vision, morning grogginess, and in some children, an opposite effect of hyperactivity.3
General Tips to Improve Your Child’s Sleep
For almost all sleep issues in children, the AACAP recommends lifestyle and behavioral changes first and foremost, and sleep aids only as a secondary option.3 If you haven’t yet, we recommend trying the following sleep tips:
- Stick to a sleep schedule – Your child should go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, including weekends, to help get their circadian rhythm back on track.
- Create an ideal sleep environment – Your child’s bedroom should be cool, quiet, and well organized; a safe and peaceful place to retreat. Older children should have a completely dark bedroom to help support melatonin production. Some younger children might like a night light, but be sure to use a light that emits a red or orange hue, as this shouldn’t impact their melatonin production.
- Implement a regular bedtime routine – Have your child do something calming each night before bed, like bath time, reading time, meditation, storytime, etc. These things will help your child calm down from the day, as well as let them know it’s about time to go to sleep.
- No screens before bed – The blue light emitted from devices like cell phones, tablets, or TVs negatively impacts our body’s production of melatonin20, so be sure your child is not using screens, ideally, two hours before bedtime.
- Give them a snack – It’s not good to have a heavy meal just before bed, but going to bed hungry can also make it harder to sleep. Experts recommend a light and healthy snack21 one or two hours before bed.
- Avoid naps – Most children start to give up naps between the ages of three and five22. If your child is beyond napping age, be sure they’re not taking naps during the day. This can make it harder to get to sleep at night.
- Adequate exercise – Exercise can help tire out kids so they get more sleepy, and it’s linked to better sleep23 in general. If your child is between the ages of three and five24, they should be active throughout the day; if they are between six and 17, they need at least one hour of exercise a day.
- A stuffed animal might help – Research shows that sleeping with a stuffed animal25 can help kids sleep better at night.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) – CBT-I is one of the most effective tools27 for treating sleep issues long-term.
Read more: Kids and Sleep: Hours, Factors, and Guide
Frequently Asked Questions
What can I give a child to help them sleep?
Experts recommend making behavioral and lifestyle modifications before giving your child any sort of sleep aid. If you’ve tried this and your child still needs some help, we recommend trying some more natural routes like melatonin, tart cherry juice, or chamomile tea. If that doesn’t help, your child’s doctor may suggest an over-the-counter medication or prescription sleeping pill. However, even if you’re considering supplements, you should first check with your child’s healthcare provider before giving them any.
What is the safest sleep aid for children?
Usually, the safest option is going to be something naturally helpful for sleep like a glass of warm milk, chamomile tea, or tart cherry juice.16 In the case of supplements or medication, it is safest to administer them under the guidance of your child’s healthcare provider.
Is it safe to give kids melatonin?
Most experts believe it should be safe to give your child melatonin, as long as the dose is appropriate, behavioral issues are also being addressed, and it is just for a maximum of three weeks.8
More research still needs to be done on the potential impact of melatonin supplementation on kids nearing puberty since their melatonin levels naturally drop during this time.9
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.
- “Insomnia”. Boston Children’s Hospital. Webpage accessed January 11, 2024.
- Boafo, Addo., et al. “Medications for sleep disturbance in children and adolescents with depression: a survey of Canadian child and adolescent psychiatrists”. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. 2020.
- “Sleep Disorders: Parents’ Medication Guide”. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2021.
- Arendt PhD, Josephine., Aulinas MD PhD, Anna. “Physiology of the Pineal Gland and Melatonin”. Endotext. Last modified October 30, 2022.
- Marshall, Lisa., Goda, Nicholas. “Melatonin use soars among children, with unknown risks”. CU Boulder Today. 2023.
- “Melatonin for Sleep: Does It Work?”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed January 11, 2024.
- Fliesler, Nancy. “Melatonin for kids: Is it effective? Is it safe?”. Boston Children’s Hospital. 2022.
- “Do’s and Don’ts of Giving Melatonin to Kids”. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Last modified April 5, 2021.
- Boafo, Addo. “Could long-term administration of melatonin to prepubertal children affect timing of puberty? A clinician’s perspective”. Nature and Science of Sleep. 2019.
- Janjua MD, Irvin., Goldman MD, Ran D. “Sleep-related melatonin use in healthy children”. Canadian Family Physician. 2016.
- “USP Verified Mark”. USP.org. Webpage accessed January 11, 2024.
- Anand, Shweta., et al. “Safety, Tolerability and Efficacy of Drugs for Treating Behavioural Insomnia in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Systematic Review with Methodological Quality Assessment”. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- France, Karyn G., et al. “Empirical research evaluating the effects of non-traditional approaches to enhancing sleep in typical and clinical children and young people”. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2018.
- Martinelli, Katherine. “CBD: What Parents Need to Know”. Child Mind Institute. Last modified October 30, 2023.
- “Micronutrient Requirements of Children Ages 4 to 13 Years”. Oregon State University. Last modified April 12, 2019.
- “Natural Sleep Aids: Home Remedies to Help You Sleep”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed January 12, 2024.
- “The difference between tolerance, dependence, and addiction”. Greenhill Recovery. Webpage accessed January 12, 2024.
- “Sleep aids: Understand options sold without a prescription”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified June 8, 2022.
- “Antihistamines”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified July 13, 2020.
- Cooper MD, Joanna A. “Screens and Your Sleep: The Impact of Nighttime Use”. Sutter Health. Webpage accessed January 12, 2024.
- “Sleep Tips for Children”. Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Webpage accessed January 12, 2024.
- McCarthy MD, Claire. “Naps: Make the most of them and know when to stop them”. Harvard Health Publishing. 2021.
- “Exercising for Better Sleep”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed January 23, 2024.
- “How much physical activity do children need?”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified June 30, 2023.
- Golem, Devon., et al. “‘My stuffed animals help me’: the importance, barriers, and strategies for adequate sleep behaviors of school-age children and parents”. Sleep Health. 2019.
- “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia”. Stanford Medicine. Webpage accessed January 12, 2024.