1. Toddlers
  2. Sleep
  3. Sleep issues

Sleep medications and children

3-15 years

Medication usually isn’t the answer to solving children’s sleeping problems. If your child has trouble sleeping, there are other ways to deal with the problem.

Managing children’s sleep problems

If your child is having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, there isn’t a magic pill or potion to fix the problem. Medications and drugs are rarely used to help children sleep because medications can have side effects. Even herbal or ‘natural’ medications can have side effects.

Sometimes you can make other changes to help your child sleep better.

Sleep habits
A good place to start with sleep problems is your child’s sleep habits. Sometimes changing both daytime and night-time habits can make a big difference to your child’s sleep – and help the whole family get a better night’s rest. For example, you might be able to reset your child’s body clock with a regular bedtime routine, morning sunlight, regular exercise and a healthy diet.

Caffeine
Food and drinks with caffeine – for example, cola drinks, chocolate, coffee, tea and high-energy drinks – can make it hard for children to fall asleep at night. Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening will help your child to fall asleep more easily. Your child should also avoid guarana or ‘natural caffeine’.

Iron
If your child is tired or sleeping poorly, has little or no appetite, and is having some behaviour problems, she might have an iron deficiency or anaemia. It might be a good idea to see your child’s doctor.

If positive changes to your child’s habits aren’t helping, talk with a health professional – especially if sleep problems, however mild, are affecting your child’s wellbeing, schoolwork or relationships. Also seek help if the problems are making your child anxious, or if they go on for more than 2-4 weeks. Each child needs individual treatment for sleep problems.

Using sleep medications

For a difficult sleeping problem, your health professional might prescribe a medication such as melatonin or a sedative to help your child sleep. Sleep medications are often used for a short time – days or months – with behaviour strategies to improve your child’s sleep habits. Using medication and behaviour strategies together helps maintain improvements in your child’s sleep when he stops taking the medication.

If your doctor does prescribe medication to help your child sleep, ask about the possible side effects of the medication.

Some sleep medications are also available in health food shops or over-the-counter in pharmacies. If you want to use one of these medications, always talk about it with your doctor first.

You should give your child sleep medicine only if your doctor advises you to do so, and only if your doctor is supervising your child’s treatment. Never give your child more than the recommended dose of any medication.

Herbal remedies

Herbal or ‘natural’ sleep remedies – such as valerian, chamomile, hops, passion flower, St John’s wort – are available in many health food shops, but there isn’t much evidence to show that they help. Keep in mind that herbal remedies don’t go through the same testing as medications prescribed by your doctor or bought over the counter at your pharmacy.

Valerian is a herbal sedative that has been shown to aid sleep in one small study of children with intellectual disability. Valerian is unlikely to cause any serious side effects, so it might be helpful in some children and teenagers.
Mixing prescription medicine and over-the-counter medicine or herbal remedies from a pharmacy or health food shop can be very dangerous. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist first.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by your brain when it gets dark at night. It helps your body fall asleep at night. It also helps maintain your body clock from day to day.

Your doctor might prescribe melatonin if your child has an autistic disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or a visual problem including blindness. Your doctor might prescribe melatonin for your teenager if your teenager has trouble falling asleep and waking up in the morning.

If your child is taking melatonin, she needs to be settled and ready for bed before having her nightly dose. This is because melatonin usually works within 30-60 minutes. You shouldn’t give melatonin to your child except under direct medical advice and supervision.

Sedative medications

Sedative medications include the antihistamine drugs Vallergan and Phenergan. Your child should take sedative medications only under the supervision of your doctor.

These medications aren’t recommended for children under three years of age. They can cause side effects such as crankiness, hyperactivity, challenging behaviour and daytime drowsiness in some children.

Use of a sedative medication by itself is very unlikely to help your child’s sleep pattern without behaviour strategies to improve your child’s bedtime routine.

Sleeping tablets

Sleeping tablets – for example, benzodiazepines – are sometimes prescribed for adults with sleeping problems, but their effects in children haven’t been studied enough. In rare situations your doctor might prescribe a sleeping tablet for your child under careful medical supervision.

It’s never safe to give your child medication prescribed for someone else.

Other prescription medications

If your child has a behaviour problem – for example, ADHD or ASD – or a medical problem – for example, cerebral palsy – or a developmental delay, and is also sleeping poorly, discuss this with your doctor. Your child’s paediatrician might be able to prescribe additional medications for your child’s sleeping difficulties.

Medication will help in the longer term only if your child uses it along with strategies to help him learn new sleep behaviours.

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Last updated or reviewed
17-06-2013

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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