With 2 years and 4 months to live, the son of administrator and businesswoman Talita Valentim started taking melatonin to sleep. “He resisted sleep, always beating himself up, complaining and waking up at dawn. It was a very exhausting period”, says the mother, stating that the possibility of autism spectrum disorder was investigated and the pediatrician indicated the substance to calm him down.
Melatonin is a hormone propagated, more and more, as a supplement to improve the sleep of adults. But, according to the president of the Scientific Department of Sleep Medicine of the Brazilian Society of Pediatrics (SBP), Gustavo Moreira, the demand for this and other ways is also growing for children – “and it is a concern”.
Questions and publications online and offline indicate interest in solutions for children’s sleep, ranging from teenagers to newborns. Teas, floral drops and anti-allergic drugs that have drowsiness as an adverse effect are among the outlets that enter the wheel.
Little pieces of black stripe pills, like Zolpidem, which are already part of the routine of some adult in the house, are also administered improperly, according to specialists.
Moreira warns, however, that they can cause reactions such as sleepwalking and night terrors.
Fernanda Dubourg, neuropediatrician and sleep specialist at the University of Nantes, France, reinforces that offering sleep-inducing substances without professional supervision can put children’s health at risk.
“There is no magic formula, no drops, no jujubes, no syrup. What needs to be said is: if there are problems with sleep, you should seek medical help, talk to the pediatrician. It is necessary to evaluate the child to characterize whether it is normal sleep or there is some sleep disorder, or neurodevelopmental disorder”, he advises.
Google Trends, a tool that shows the most popular searches on the search platform, is an indication that curiosity about the subject, in Portuguese, is steady.
When the search is on the term “medicines”, the phrase “for children to sleep” was one of the main associations in the last 12 months. Baby tranquilizers record “sudden rise” in queries related to “sleep” and “hypnotic – drug class”, clicks on which lead to texts about melatonin.
According to Gustavo Moreira, many substances are administered without control to children. Among them, melatonin stands out with “a huge boom”.
“This started abroad and then came here, but there are no studies that demonstrate that the substance works for people who have normal development. It is indicated in specific situations, for conditions such as autism (when hormone production is reduced ), and not as something for the general population,” he adds.
There is a lack, in Brazil, of official data on the pace of consumption – and the dangers involved – in the midst of the growth observed by health professionals.
Meanwhile, a report published in 2022 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the number of pediatric melatonin intakes increased by 530% in the country, with effects such as nervous system, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders in 17 .2% of cases.
The study considers a period of 10 years, from 2012 to 2021. Among the most serious records, it cites epileptic seizures, respiratory arrests with intubation and deaths.
In Talita’s son, other effects were noticed. “He had a very swollen belly and he would cry with his hand on his head. When we found out what was wrong, we took it out. [a substância]. We noticed that he was like he was doped. The sense of guilt was enormous,” he says.
Recently diagnosed with mild autism, the boy “goes through good and bad phases”. “At the moment we are in a bad situation, because he spends the whole night complaining. But we decided to continue like this, without medication”, adds the businesswoman, who is also the mother of a one-year-old girl.
At the house of baker Didiane Singh, the discovery of autism in her daughter’s case was also preceded by sleepless nights and, finally, by the search for alternatives.
“She was a very calm baby when she was born, but when she was three months old, she started to show agitation. She stayed up all night, often going to sleep at 6 am. My milk stopped because I had no rest. And the pediatricians they said it was a child’s tantrum, that everything was ok”, she says.
“So I started giving chamomile tea, which didn’t have much effect, and I saw floral therapy for babies at the pharmacy. In the first days I already noticed improvement”, he says.
The girl, now 1 year and 6 months old, now uses medication to sleep, prescribed by the doctor. The mother says that she suspended the florals. “The product contains sodium benzoate and alcohol and I would not use it again due to these substances.”
The neuropediatrician Fernanda Dubourg reinforces that in cases of childhood insomnia, the first step is the specialized evaluation for the correct diagnosis and indication of the best therapeutic plan, most of the time non-medicated.
“If the diagnosis is behavioral insomnia, the recommended treatment is sleep hygiene and behavioral interventions. Working together with sleep psychology enables excellent results in pediatrics”, he says, emphasizing that it is necessary to teach the child to fall asleep alone.
The expert also advocates reducing the use of cell phone screens and other devices. Light in the night period, punctuates, blocks the release of melatonin and ends up disturbing sleep.
“It is necessary to reduce this exposure to light at night. Stop using screens 1 to 2 hours before bedtime, in addition to talking about sleep in schools, so that children understand the harm of bad sleep, which includes the deficit of attention, hyperactivity and learning difficulties, among many others”, says Dubourg.
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