About 70 per cent of children have trouble sleeping and almost one-third of those are medicated by their parents to help them, according to a new study by the Canadian Paediatric Society.

The Ontario study surveyed parents of 350 children between the ages of one to 10 who came into the emergency department.

The parents were asked about their children's sleep problems and whether they medicate them for it.

"It's pretty high, 70 per cent," said Wendy Hall, a nursing professor and a University of British Columbia researcher. 

But she says the numbers might not be reflective of the overall population.

"We know that children with sleep problems are a bit more clumsy because they are sleep deprived and also don't have a strong immune system," she said.

"So it's conceivable there would be a a higher proportion of children who are otherwise healthy going to the emergency department."

Melatonin dangers

What is alarming for Hall is that 30 per cent of the parents reported that they were medicating their children with over-the-counter melatonin or Tylenol. 

Melatonin, a hormone which is produced naturally as part the sleep cycle, has been dubbed the 'magic pill' by parents who rely on it to get healthy kids to sleep.

It is sold at health food and drug stores to help adults overcome jet lag or occasional insomnia. 

But Hall says researchers don't know the long-term effects of melatonin on healthy kids and that's a concern.

"The FDA, the Federal Drug Administration, does not recommend any of these things for children," she said, referring to the U.S. health agency.

She is also concerned about the dosages parents might be giving their children.

"Because it is treated as a food supplement it is not regulated as drugs are, and it's not produced in laboratories that are controlled or monitored," she said.

"You can't be certain the dose it says you're getting on the bottle is actually what you are getting," she said. "The dose is often 20 times what your body normally produces."

Common mistakes

Hall has studied child sleep for over a decade and says most parents won't need to look to medication for help, they just need to practice good sleep hygiene with their children.

She says some common mistakes parents make are:

1. Putting the child to sleep somewhere and then moving them

"That can cause the children to wake up during the night fully, if they come into a light sleep state because that is not where they went to bed," she said. 

2. Not having regular sleep routines

Children who have trouble sleeping often don't have regular sleep routines. 

Hall says the same sleep routines should be used for naps as well.

3. Not sleeping by 9:00 p.m. 

She says it's important that the latest a child goes to bed is 9:00 p.m.

4. Bottles right before bedtime. 

Hall says parents shouldn't give children a bottle right before bedtime.

"Because then children associate feeding and sleeping and can end up waking themselves up in the middle of the night," she said. 

To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled Children taking medication to get to sleep on the CBC's The Early Edition.