Canada urgently needs guidelines for managing sleep disorders in children, say the authors of a study that found over-the-counter and prescription medications are commonly used to get kids to sleep.

A survey of nearly 350 parents who brought their children to a pediatric emergency department found that 80 per cent of kids with underlying medical conditions and 70 per cent without pre-existing conditions had trouble sleeping.

Among those kids who had repeated sleep problems, 27 per cent had been given over-the-counter medications to help them sleep. Six per cent of the children were given prescription medications.

Hormone supplement melatonin was a commonly-used sleep aid in children, along with over-the-counter products like pain relievers and antihistamines, the study found.

Among all kids receiving over-the-counter sleep aids, more than 40 per cent received melatonin.

The study, recently presented to the Canadian Pediatric Society, concludes that “Canadian-wide data on the use of pharmacotherapy to treat, and guidelines for managing pediatric sleep disorders are urgently needed, along with pediatric data on sleep medication safety and dosing.”

Research shows melatonin supplements can promote sleep in children with health problems like cystic fibrosis and autism. But the Canadian Pediatric Society doesn’t recommend its use in healthy kids because no one has ever studied the long-term effects.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Dirk Bock, said the frequency with which sleep-promoting medications and supplements are used in children is “a little surprising.”

The London Health Sciences Centre pediatrician and researcher at Western University in London, Ont., said study results raise troubling questions.

“Children may start getting used to the fact they need medication to have a good sleep,” Bock said in an interview with CTV News.

Dr. Michael Rieder of the Canadian Pediatric Society went further, calling the findings “stunning.”

“If you had asked me what proportion of Canadian use sleep aids with children two days ago, I would have said probably said a minority,” he told CTV News.

“This is stunning. It is something we should think about.”

Doctors say it's much better to teach children how to sleep naturally --in quiet bedrooms, free of electronic distractions.

“I think there are simple lifestyle measures, which may not be popular at the moment but may be better in the long term,” Rieder said.

Michelle Ferreri, who writes a popular parenting blog, said she tried everything to get her now eight-year-old son Giorgio to sleep.

When someone suggested she try melatonin, Ferreri said she went to a health store and was told that it wasn’t safe to give the hormone supplement to a child.

About a year and a half later, when Giorgio was about six or seven years old, Ferreri took the advice of a trusted friend to try melatonin.

“The first night I gave it to him … within 10 minutes he was asleep,” she said. “We saw instant results with it.”

Ferreri said she’s not surprised that other parents are also giving their children melatonin.

She said she doesn’t have “any outstanding evidence to say there is risk” in giving her son melatonin, especially considering how it has benefited him.

But she agrees with researchers who are calling for urgent studies of the growing use of the supplement.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip