Disturbed sleep and on-the-job sleepiness are widespread problems among night shift workers. The pineal hormone melatonin may prove to be a useful treatment because it has both sleep-promoting and circadian phase-shifting effects. This study was designed to isolate melatonin's sleep-promoting effects, and to determine whether melatonin could improve daytime sleep and thus improve night time alertness and performance during the night shift. The study utilized a placebo-controlled, double-blind, cross-over design. Subjects (n=21, mean age=27.0 +/- 5.0 years) participated in two 6-day laboratory sessions. Each session included one adaptation night, two baseline nights, two consecutive 8-h night shifts followed by 8-h daytime sleep episodes and one recovery night. Subjects took 1.8 mg sustained-release melatonin 0.5 h before the two daytime sleep episodes during one session, and placebo before the daytime sleep episodes during the other session. Sleep was recorded using polysomnography. Sleepiness, performance, and mood during the night shifts were evaluated using the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) and a computerized neurobehavioral testing battery. Melatonin prevented the decrease in sleep time during daytime sleep relative to baseline, but only on the first day of melatonin administration. Melatonin increased sleep time more in subjects who demonstrated difficulty in sleeping during the day. Melatonin had no effect on alertness on the MSLT, or performance and mood during the night shift. There were no hangover effects from melatonin administration. These findings suggest that although melatonin can help night workers obtain more sleep during the day, they are still likely to face difficulties working at night because of circadian rhythm misalignment. The possibility of tolerance to the sleep-promoting effects of melatonin across more than 1 day needs further investigation.