Are Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids Safe While Breastfeeding?

Melatonin and other OTC sleep aids may not be safe if you're nursing

If you have trouble sleeping while you are breastfeeding, you may consider taking over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids like melatonin to help you sleep. While these products can be safe and effective in general, you should talk to your healthcare provider about the safest option for you and your baby.

Sleep deprivation is common when you're caring for a baby. You may also have trouble falling or staying asleep (insomnia). If you're breastfeeding, the stress of adjusting to a new routine, swollen breasts, nighttime nursing, and the lingering pain from giving birth can make it harder to get a good night's sleep.

Closeup glass of drink water and pills on white table with blurred background of man sleeping on sofa in living room.
nathaphat / Getty Images

This article covers sleep problems you might have while you're breastfeeding. It also goes over the options you have to improve your sleep, including the possible risks and safety concerns of using OTC medications and supplements like melatonin while you're nursing.

Sleep Problems While Breastfeeding

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 55% of people are still nursing their babies at 6 months while 35% are still nursing their 1-year-olds. While parents are motivated by the many benefits of breastfeeding, many new parents experience trouble sleeping—and breastfeeding can add to the challenges.

For some people, though, breastfeeding can actually help with insomnia. The hormone prolactin, which is responsible for lactation, also plays a role in moderating stress in people who are nursing. As long as you continue nursing, your prolactin levels will remain high.

Even with higher prolactin levels, you could still have sleep problems while you're breastfeeding. Regularly interrupted sleep can lead to sleep deprivation, which can compound and worsen over time. You might have symptoms like:

  • Constant yawning
  • Daytime grogginess
  • Dozing off
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Slowed response times
  • Depression

When your concentration, moods, and ability to function are impaired, it's important that you reach out for help.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Sleep Aids

Most over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids contain antihistamines. These are medications typically used to relieve allergy symptoms. Older-generation antihistamines like diphenhydramine (found in Benadryl and Diphenist) and chlorpheniramine found in Chlor-Trimetron and Aller-Chlor) are known to cause drowsiness and promote sleep.

For short periods, the two active ingredients are probably safe for people who are breastfeeding. Some research has suggested that antihistamines can safely be used while breastfeeding because only minimal amounts are excreted in breast milk.

Diphenhydramine is one of the most commonly used sleep aids. It is the active ingredient in Nytol and Sominex. It is also found in OTC pain relievers like Tylenol PM (acetaminophen and diphenhydramine) which are used to reduce pain and induce sleep.

Are There Risks?

As with all drugs, OTC sleep aids containing diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine can cause side effects, including:

  • Headaches
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Stomach upset
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Chest congestion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nervousness

These OTC sleep aids are only intended for short-term use. The long-term use of these drugs can increase the risk of side effects. It can also potentially affect a nursing baby, causing irritability, crying, sleepiness, or sleep problems.

The long-term use of antihistamines also has a paradoxical effect on some people, causing increased wakefulness rather than drowsiness.

Antihistamines can also cause a decrease in the supply of breastmilk. If you decide to use a sleep aid like Nytol or Sominex, keeping well hydrated can help minimize this effect.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a chemical that is released by the brain that helps induce sleep as part of the sleep-wake cycle. You can also buy melatonin supplements at most pharmacies and drugstores.

There are some potential benefits and risks to using melatonin at any time, not just while you're breastfeeding. You should talk to your provider before trying melatonin.

Possible Benefits

Melatonin has relatively few side effects. Some people experience headaches, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness when they take melatonin but these side effects are usually mild.

Although some studies have concluded that melatonin supplements can help you fall asleep faster, they do not seem to work for everyone. Some people report sleeping longer when taking melatonin, while others report no effect at all.

The effects of melatonin also tend to wane over time. Therefore, melatonin supplements are really intended for short-term rather than ongoing relief from insomnia.

Potential Risks

If you took melatonin before or during your pregnancy without any problems, you might wonder if it’s safe to keep using it while you are breastfeeding.

The short answer is that there has not been enough research to prove whether taking melatonin while you are breastfeeding is safe or not.

It’s not clear how melatonin might affect a breastfed infant. However, we do know that melatonin can cause side effects like agitation, sleepiness, and bet-wetting in young children. Melatonin is not recommended for any child under the age of 3 years old. 

There has been very little research on melatonin’s safety for babies, so we do not know for sure how they would be affected. Since melatonin can make you sleepy, it’s possible that an infant who has been exposed to melatonin might get too drowsy. 

Since we don’t know for sure what will happen if you use melatonin while you are breastfeeding, experts recommend that you do not take it until your baby is weaned. 

However, each person’s situation is different. You should talk to your provider about what would be safe for you. For example, your provider might approve of you taking a small amount of melatonin for a short time while you are breastfeeding. If not, they can recommend an alternative. 

When to See a Provider

It can be hard to get enough rest when you’re caring for a baby—especially if you’re breastfeeding on demand—but sleep is very important for your physical and mental health.

If you are struggling to get enough quality sleep while you’re breastfeeding, reach out to your provider for support. While making the adjustment to parenthood could certainly be contributing to poor sleep, there could also be other causes that your provider will want to rule out. 

Your provider can also help you find ways to improve your sleep and can recommend treatments that would be safe for you to use while you are breastfeeding.

How to Improve Your Sleep Without Medication

Drugs and supplements are not the only way to address sleep problems. By making a few lifestyle changes, you might be able to cope with insomnia without using medications.

Some non-medication ways to improve your sleep include:

  • Improved sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene means creating routines and environments that foster sleep. This includes steps like avoiding food and electronics for an hour or so before you go to bed, sticking to a routine sleep schedule as much as possible, and ensuring your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool.
  • Exercise: Physical activity helps with sleep and can improve your mood because it releases "feel-good" hormones called endorphins. Even taking your child out in a stroller while you take a walk for 30 minutes to an hour can help.
  • Medical care: Sometimes, sleep problems are secondary to post-pregnancy conditions like heartburn, leg cramps, or shortness of breath. Rather than "living with it," talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to manage these symptoms.

If these remedies don't help, you may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist who can perform an overnight sleep study. In some cases, there may be pre-existing sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, that may have been "unmasked" by the pregnancy. By seeing a sleep specialist, you may find solutions that only improve sleep but later in life as well.

Summary

Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids containing the antihistamine diphenhydramine (such as Nytol and Sominex) may be safe for nursing mothers with insomnia. Another antihistamine called chlorpheniramine (found in Chlor-Trimetron) may also help. Side effects include daytime drowsiness, stomach upset, and nervousness.

While melatonin supplements may help some people fall asleep faster, they don't work for everyone and tends to lose their effectiveness over time.

Lifestyle changes may help overcome insomnia. This includes improving your sleep habits, exercising routinely, and creating a bedroom environment that fosters sleep. Speak with your healthcare provider if sleep problems persist. If needed, you may be referred to a sleep specialist for further investigation.

A Word From Verywell

If your sleep issues are persistent, it is important to focus on yourself and get to the bottom of the issue. New parents all too commonly put their own needs on the back burner as they focus on the new baby and other family members.

Disrupted sleep is not only a nuisance that can leave you irritable, but can be dangerous when reaction times are decreased (such as while driving a car). Give your baby a gift by taking care of yourself.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding: Facts.

  2. So M, Bozzo P, Inoue M, Einarson A. Safety of antihistamines during pregnancy and lactationCan Fam Physician. 2010;56(5):427-429.

  3. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Melatonin: In Depth.

  4. Vine T, Brown GM, Frey BN. Melatonin use during pregnancy and lactation: A scoping review of human studiesBraz J Psychiatry. 2022;44(3):342-348. doi:10.1590/1516-4446-2021-2156

  5. Davis's Drug Guide. Melatonin (pineal hormone, N-acetyl-5–methoxtryptamine).

  6. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Melatonin: What You Need To Know.

  7. Fliesler N. Melatonin for kids: Is it effective? Is it safe? - Boston Children’s Answers.

  8. Marseglia L, Gitto E, Laschi E, et al. Antioxidant effect of melatonin in preterm newbornsOxid Med Cell Longev. 2021;2021:6308255. Published 2021 Nov 19. doi:10.1155/2021/6308255