Blaze News original: Melatonin given to kids at some day-care centers without parental consent. What you need to know.

Melatonin, an over-the-counter drug often taken as a sedative, has reportedly been given to children at day-care centers, sometimes without parental permission. Blaze News investigated the issue to get a better understanding of the scope of the problem. We also spoke with Cindy Lehnhoff, the director of the National Child Care Association, to learn what parents can do to protect their children and ensure they are placed in a safe facility.

Background on melatonin

Melatonin is a naturally occurring substance in the human body that, among other things, helps regulate sleep patterns, according to WebMD. In synthetic form, melatonin is relatively inexpensive and readily available. It can even be taken in a gummy or other forms of candy, which are especially attractive to children.

One former day-care director was even sentenced to about six months in jail following her conviction on 17 charges related to neglect and reckless supervision.

In rare cases, medical professionals even recommend that children ages 4 and up be given a low dose of melatonin for aid with sleeping. A recent article from Boston Children’s Hospital claims that children suffering from insomnia, ADHD, restless leg syndrome, and some neurological disorders may benefit from taking a melatonin supplement.

However, the hospital also emphasizes that, with children, such supplements should always be paired with “behavioral interventions.” It also cautions that children 3 and under and those without a diagnosed sleep problem should not take melatonin.

WebMD even warned that increased doses of melatonin could affect “sexual development” in children. The recommended dose for children is just 1 mg.

Despite the risks associated with melatonin, a quick internet search reveals that child-care workers from around the country have occasionally administered the drug to children without a sleep disorder diagnosis and/or without parental consent. In the last five years or so, day-care facilities in Alabama, California, Indiana, Illinois New Hampshire, and Washington have all been investigated in connection with alleged unauthorized melatonin distribution.

In a few cases, the employees alleged to have given children the drug were either fired or required to undergo further training. In others, the suspects were actually arrested. One former day-care director in the Indianapolis area was even sentenced to about six months in jail after she gave melatonin to children in her care for more than a month.

‘What else don’t we know about?’ Parental reaction

In some instances, the children who allegedly received the supplement experienced no adverse effects whatsoever. However, others manifested some of the known side effects, such as a rash or aberrant behavior, prompting outrage and fear in their parents.

Some parents were concerned about possible allergic reactions or other forms of intolerance. Others mentioned disruptions in their child’s sleep habits.

In one instance, the parents of a young boy with autism had already been giving him a dose of melatonin at night. “So unbeknownst to us, he was getting it twice,” the boy’s mother claimed.

Still others felt betrayed and worried that casual dispensing of melatonin may be a sign of deeper problems at the facility. “What else don’t we know about now?” one mother wondered. “Is there more going on under the surface and people are not reporting or sharing it? And what could that be?”

‘Things that the parent … needs to know’: The scope of the problem

Cindy Lehnhoff, a mother and grandmother, spent more than three and a half decades working in and overseeing child-care facilities. Now, as the director of the National Child Care Association, she spends her time advocating on behalf of day-care owners and employees and working to ensure that their facilities offer a basic standard of care.

Lehnhoff assured Blaze News that dispensing of melatonin is not a common problem at day-care centers, though she quickly added that “certainly, one situation is one too many.”

‘They have to give written permission to apply sunblock!’

She noted that there are literally thousands of day-care centers, both licensed and unlicensed, across the country, and therefore, thousands and thousands of workers. From that perspective, she claimed, the dozen or more facilities that allegedly engaged in illicit melatonin use represent just a tiny fraction of the overall child-care industry.

Lehnhoff also claimed that though regulations vary by state, almost all licensed centers offer parents a handbook that spells out their rules and regulations regarding things like nap time and medication.

And she indicated that the rules about medicine are often strictly enforced. In most cases, child-care employees follow the directions as listed on the bottle, even for drugs like Tylenol. In some cases, facilities might refuse to dispense any medication except those prescribed to the child by a doctor.

“I’ve never worked in a state anywhere — and I’ve worked in 12 states — where parents do not have to give written permission to give medication,” Lehnhoff reiterated.

“They have to give written permission to apply sunblock!”

She encouraged parents to read through a child-care facility’s handbook carefully, insisting that such handbooks are typically written clearly and are easy to understand. Moreover, they almost always “cover things that the parent really, really needs to know,” she said.

Blaze News asked whether such handbooks might ever contain fine print wherein facilities admit they may administer supplements like melatonin without specifically contacting parents for permission. She doubted that they would.

“I would be very surprised if they buried something like that because it’s to the center’s advantage to have very clear, precise documentation for parents so that they know what to expect,” she explained.

‘I’ve rubbed a lot of backs’: Natural ways to encourage kids to sleep

One possible reason that day-care employees may be doling out melatonin is because their work is, in Lehnoff’s phrasing, so “labor-intensive.” It is easy to imagine how difficult it might be to convince perhaps dozens of children of various ages to settle down for a nap at the same time and why it might be tempting to cut corners with a seemingly harmless supplement like melatonin.

‘They’d sleep for a solid two, three hours. We’d have to rouse some of them.’

In the short term, melatonin appears to be quite effective at helping children and adults fall asleep. After a longtime employee was apparently caught dispensing melatonin to 1-year-olds at an early childhood school in Seattle, other workers noted in hindsight the drastic change in the sleep patterns of kids in her charge.

“I remember always noticing when I was in that classroom — and I feel naïve saying this now — but remarking to myself, ‘Wow, these children take a heck of a nap,'” one former employee said. “They’d sleep for a solid two, three hours. We’d have to rouse some of them.”

Lehnoff believes that the child-care workers who give melatonin to kids without parental consent know that what they are doing is wrong. She also explained to Blaze News that rather than resort to medication, such workers should return to best practices regarding nutrition and exercise. She suggested planning a “busy morning,” giving kids plenty of time outside — provided the weather cooperates — and preparing a hearty lunch.

“I mean, I don’t know about you, but a lot of times after I eat lunch, I’m ready to nap,” she joked.

Finally, she said kids should bring with them sleep items such as a blanket or stuffed animal that bring peace and comfort and remind them of home. When it’s time for rest period to begin, she encourages facilities to read a story or play soft music and to have workers identify fussy or restless children who may need extra care and attention.

“You sit in between two cots and you rub their backs,” she said. “… “Those are all processes that help children rest and sleep versus melatonin.”

“I’ve rubbed a lot of backs,” she recalled with a smile.

‘Not just babysitting’: Better awareness of day-care centers

Of course, parents ought to do their due diligence before ever placing their children into the care of a stranger. For parents in search of a child-care facility, Lehnoff recommends conducting old-fashioned forms of research such as taking tours, reading reviews, and speaking with references.

‘They should welcome the opportunity to show the parent what it is that they do.’

She even suggests that parents periodically pop in unannounced or stop by and have lunch with their child. She also encourages parents to ask all kinds of safety-related questions about topics ranging from fire and tornado drills to CPR training.

She claimed that annoyance, hesitation, or defensiveness about such questions or about opening up their facility to scrutiny should be a red flag to parents. “A child-care center should welcome a tour,” she insisted. “… They should welcome the opportunity to show the parent what it is that they do.”

And, Lehnoff added, child-care facilities should happily provide detailed information regarding food menus and planned activities. “They offer early education and development opportunities,” she said. “They’re not just babysitting all day.”

In some cases, parents may have access to video footage from cameras located inside and outside their child’s day-care facility so that they can monitor their child throughout the day at their convenience. However, cameras capturing footage of minors present other safety concerns, so parents ought to speak with managers and/or directors so that they understand the benefits and risks of such surveillance, Lehnoff said.

Taking the time to research a facility before placing a child there and occasionally checking in with a child during the day may even thwart possible misconduct besides melatonin dispensation.

The former day-care director mentioned earlier who served time after giving kids melatonin seemed to have a personality conflict with many people at the facility, both adults and children. Subordinates described her as a “bully” with a “her way or the highway” personality. One parent even claimed her son was afraid of the director and often expressed anxiety about having to go to day care.

‘No ladder of compensation’: Problems with staffing

Lehnoff likewise noted that the quality of a child-care facility depends largely on the quality of its employees. Aside from the medical field, the child-care industry has the highest liability circumstances in the country, she claimed, but with some of the lowest wages, it often struggles to attract passionate, well-trained professionals.

‘You would have more people to hire from.’

“It’s a struggle right now to staff child-care centers because people have got to earn higher wages to live in our inflationary environment,” Lehnoff stated.

“Right now, there’s a lot of push for people to get credentials to work in child care, but there’s no ladder of compensation unless the employer says, ‘I’ll pay you $2 more an hour [more] once you earn this credential,’ or, ‘Once you get your degree, I will pay you X amount,'” she said.

“We hire college students that are working on their teaching credentials, but once they get a four-year degree, they go to a public school,” she continued, explaining that child-care facilities often pay around $15 an hour, whereas public teachers can make sometimes $40,000 a year plus benefits to start. Plus, they have summers off.

When asked whether she thought higher wages for employees might prevent cases of illicit melatonin dispensation, Lehnoff insisted that they could. “I think it would because … you would have more people to hire from,” she said.

‘Advocacy’: Empowering parents and day-care owners

According to Pew Research, about half of working parents with children under 6 rely on child-care facilities so they can remain employed. And 8.4% of American households with children 17 and under reported on recent survey from the U.S. Census Bureau that they have used a day-care center sometime in their lives.

Though some facilities may decline to dispense melatonin without a prescription, they won’t contact authorities about it.

With busy schedules, parents often select a child-care facility based on price and location. However, Lehnoff suggests they also make safety and reliability top priorities to help avoid facilities that tend to cut corners and that may be more apt to dispense unauthorized supplements.

She also claimed that parents who give melatonin to their children and ask child-care workers to follow suit should not fear that they will be reported. Though some facilities may decline to dispense melatonin without a prescription, they won’t contact authorities about parents who do.

“I am not aware of any standard that says that a parent can’t give their child melatonin,” she told Blaze News. “Just like there’s nothing that says you can’t give your child Tylenol.”

Finally, she wanted to acknowledge the day-care directors, many of whom are small-business owners, who truly love children and who attempt to provide a good service while still keeping prices affordable, even in the face of skyrocketing insurance rates and government shutdowns. “This is what they’ve always wanted to do,” she said.

“What I do really … now is advocacy to work to get more money into the budget for working parents that need child care and need early education.”

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